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Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand

“THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH” My rating: B+ (At the Screenland Armour, AMC Town Center)

105 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Has there ever been a more visually ravishing “Macbeth” — or any Shakespeare film, for that matter — than this new version of “the Scottish play” from Joel Coen (half of the famous Coen Brothers in his first solo outing)?

Here’s a case where every element — from acting to the drop-dead gorgeous black-and-white cinematography to the brilliantly conceived production design — come together to reinforce the play’s haunting themes of human desire, fate and inevitability.

Denzel Washington makes a fine Macbeth, while Frances McDormand (aka Mrs. Joel Coen) is even better as his force-of-nature-manipulative Lady.
The lesser roles have been precisely cast and captured for the screen.

But a character unto itself is the brilliant look of the production.  Filmed by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel in a 1:33:1 frame ratio (the classic “Academy aperture”), with settings by Stefan Dechant and costumes by Mary Zophres, the film manages to be simultaneously stripped down and abundantly evocative.

The influence of great German expressionist films like the silent “Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” is found everywhere.  The yarn unfolds in a sort of nonspecific Medieval world, but one presented with a minimum of period detail.  

The castle walls are looming, smooth and white; there’s none of the grime and wear-and-tear of a realistic rendering. When late in the film the cold hard lines of Macbeth’s throne room are softened by fallen leaves blowing across the stones, the contrast delivers an almost visceral shock.

Like one of those Busby Berkley musical extravaganzas that ostensibly take place in a nightclub (a nightclub that would have to be the size of a football field with an Olympic-sized swimming pool tossed in), this “…Macbeth” might be a gigantic stage production unhampered by the limitations of an actual theater. 

The perfect artificiality of the presentation actually emphasizes and amplifies the play’s dramatic elements; against these stark backdrops human faces take on additional power. 

I’m not going to go into a lot of detail as to plotting. I figure if you’re reading this you’re familiar with the basics (oh, OK…Macbeth and the Missus conspire to kill the king and take his crown, then have to keep murdering to keep it).

But Coen’s screenplay does work a few interesting changes.  For example, the character of Ross (here played by the impossibly slender and slinky Alex Hassell) is typically a spear carrier with a few lines.  Coen has made him a semi-sinister Machiavelli whose allegiance is always in question.

Kathryn Hunter

The biggest departure is in the depiction of the “three weird sisters,” the trio of witches who predict Macbeth’s rise to power.  At the beginning of the film there is but one witch, a twisted crone (Kathryn Hunter) whose old bones contort into a human knot that moves like a crab. In one dazzling shot her image is reflected in a pool of water…but not one image: Two.  So now we have three of her.

Hunter’s performance is scary and riveting.  At times she resembles a fallen bird; at others she dons a cloak and hood, looking a lot like Death in Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal.”  Of all the images seared into my brain by this movie, Hunter’s gnarled form is the most haunting.

Indeed, a case can be made that this “Macbeth” is more satisfying visually than verbally. That’s not a knock against Washington, McDormand and their co-stars (among them familiar faces like Brendan Gleeson, Ralph Ineson, Harry Melling and Stephen Root as the drunken porter).

It’s just that the picture is such an overwhelmingly visual experience.

| Robert W. Butler

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