The Tragedy of Macbeth: The real hero of Denzel Washington’s stunning new film isn’t Denzel Washington. He hides in plain sight
With nine Oscars between them, the trio of towering central figures behind Macbeth’s Tragedy— stars Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand, and director Joel Coen — might dominate the talk on the new Shakespeare adaptation, out on Apple TV+, but a fourth person has made an equally strong artistic contribution to the film. Otherwise stronger.
French cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel began working on the project months before shooting a single frame, imagining with the director a visual aesthetic that was as avant-garde as it was rooted in tradition and history.
The five-time Oscar nominee will likely earn his sixth nomination for The Tragedy of Macbeth, continuing a no-win nomination streak that is slowly beginning to look like the one the great Roger Deakins began in 1994. In a twist of irony that would make the bard himself proud, Deakins was the Coens’ usual cinematographer before Delbonnel. Deakins won his first Oscar for his 14th nomination, then followed that up with another win for his 15th. Delbonnel is one of the best in the business, and it wouldn’t be surprising if he ended up with a career like Deakins.
This is the fourth time he has worked on a Coen Brothers project. He also shot the duo’s Paris, je t’aime segment, went on to earn an Oscar nomination for Inside Llewyn Davis and followed that up with hugely diverse work on The Ballad of Buster. Scruggs, an anthology in which each of the six shorts had a distinct visual palette. But Macbeth is the first time Joel Coen has directed on his own. And therefore, the first time that Delbonnel does not have two soundboards on a Coen platter. Although he has in the past described them as “one person, divided”.
There’s something to be said for a man who got his start in TV commercials – he told Deadline in a recent interview that he’s helped whip up everything from cat food to laundry detergent – and is now among the most requested filmmakers. He stated in the same interview that he turned down an offer to film The French Dispatch from Wes Anderson, which would have been notable as Anderson worked almost exclusively with DP Robert Yeoman; in that its inimitably handcrafted visual style is as much Yeoman’s handiwork as his own. Delbonnel, however, shot Anderson’s brilliant H&M ad a few years ago.
It wouldn’t have been the first time an acclaimed filmmaker was willing to part ways with his usual cinematographer to work with him. Besides the Coens, who had worked with Deakins since 1991, Delbonnel began a three-film streak with Tim Burton in 2012 and made two films for Joe Wright, when the filmmaker briefly parted ways with Seamus McGarvey after the disastrous Pan. Then, Delbonnel will work on Alfonso Cuaron’s next, for which he collaborates with the director’s accomplice, the triple Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki.
But while each of these DPs can pride themselves on adapting to a director’s needs and changing things up – for example, Lubezki shot both Gravity and Children of Men – Delbonnel’s style is often more recognizable than that of most filmmakers. For example, Darkest Hour and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince looked more like Bruno Delbonnel films than anything Wright or David Yates had done before.
The Tragedy of Macbeth, shot entirely on the sound stages of Los Angeles in a black-and-white Academy report, is unlike anything Coen or Delbonnel have ever attempted. It is a film defined by its emptiness; the vacancy of its brutalist corridors and the desolation of its deliberately artificial landscapes. Like Dogville and Manderlay by Lars von Trier, it is a film that is located in the no man’s land between theater and cinema.
And like those films, The Tragedy of Macbeth is almost as barren, not in a metaphorical sense, but literally. There are no windows in the walls of Macbeth’s castle; there is no furniture in his rooms; no carpets on its floors. A stark contrast, you’ll agree, to the chaos raging in his (scorpion-infested) mind.
In addition to the very pointed use of Shakespeare’s words, the film also presents a rather singular visual language. Together this creates a kind of dissonance in the viewer’s mind, an instant signal that they are experiencing something abstract. In addition to the sense of confinement that the 4:3 aspect ratio communicates, the film’s hat-trick to German Expressionism and film noir evokes a mood. You’re watching a story about a man who gradually loses his mind, so it makes sense to pay homage to a genre whose protagonists have often been torn by moral dilemmas.
Delbonnel captures the denouement of Macbeth with high-contrast imagery combined with Coen’s rhythmic editing – jagged shadows in a courtyard can turn into almost painterly portraits that fill the entire frame. And after a few predominantly gray acts, Delbonnel separates the film into a more distinct black and white, perhaps to reflect Macbeth’s descent into madness. It again floods the cramped surroundings with gray in the film’s morally murky final act, as Washington walks in for one of his last close-ups, choosing to whisper one of the most important monologues ever written.
It’s a showy performance, for sure. But it is also the one that Delbonnel has set up behind the camera. It would be a shame if it wasn’t recognized.
Post Credits Scene is a column where we dissect new releases every week, with a particular focus on background, crafting, and characters. Because there’s always something to fix after the dust settles.