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Howard Anglin: The tragedy of The Tragedy of Macbeth

Commentary

Joel Coen (director)

Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand (starring)

There is an old theatre legend that says that every great actor who has played Hamlet has seen the role performed by the great actor of the generation before him, in an unbroken lineage back to Burbage’s original performance at the Globe. It is a romantic fancy, but even if it were true, film made it obsolete more than a century ago. Every actor and director—and, more importantly, every audience member—has access to every previous filmed version of a play, which means that, more than a new staging, a new Shakespeare movie arrives freighted with the burden of comparison.

Three movies of Macbeth overshadow all others. The first is Orson Welles’s 1948 moody and experimental film, which was shot in three weeks with no money on half-built sets in borrowed costumes (check out that crown!). The young star chopped and swapped lines and scenes with reckless assurance, but unlike his later composite and shoestring film of the Henriad, Chimes at Midnight, which is the best Shakespeare on film, his Macbeth is an impressive failure. The second is Akira Kurosawa’s 1957 Throne of Blood, an epic Japanese adaptation that captures the play’s power without its poetry. And, finally, there’s the blood-and-rain-soaked realism of Roman Polanski’s 1971 movie, which shot Ken Tynan’s more faithful script on location in Scotland.

The two most recent movie Macbeths respond to this inheritance very differently. The star of Justin Kurzel’s 2015 movie was not Michael Fassbender or Marion Cotillard, though he was good and she was great, but the moody landscape. Payne’s grey seas, umber hills, and steely skies overwhelm the characters, driving home their helplessness in the grip of natural and supernatural forces that are quite literally bigger than their earthly ambitions.

In his new movie, The Tragedy of Macbeth, Joel Coen has gone the other way, shooting in black and white almost entirely on sterile sound stages of stylized arches and long shadows, Bergman by way of de Chirico. The result is a claustrophobic drama of close-ups and set pieces in empty rooms. There are no pitched battles in this Macbeth and the climactic hand-to-hand combat takes place on narrow fog-shrouded battlements. The overall effect is of Coen working with Welles’s budget, but—with one exception, which I will come to—none of his genius.

My main complaint about Kurzel’s film was its unrelenting fatalism. There is never any hope for Fassbender’s Macbeth and the director sheds little light, literal or figural, on the reason for his downfall. It is no surprise that Kurzel’s bleak vision cut the character of the Porter entirely, eliminating the play’s only scene of comic relief. Coen, by contrast, keeps the scene but plays it in such a rush (Stephen Root’s Porter is literally backpedaling for most of his heavily-pruned speech) that it feels like an outtake. I single out this minor scene because, in each case, its mishandling is typical of the film’s misunderstanding of the play.

Over and over Kurzel and Coen make the mistake of thinking they can, or need to, improve on the material Shakespeare gives us. I don’t mean that every production must play the entire text verbatim or rigidly in order. Even though Macbeth is, by some measure, the shortest of Shakespeare’s scripts, keeping a movie under two hours requires cuts. It was also written for a spare stage and a small cast, so a movie director taking advantage of his medium should take liberties with the structure. But that does not excuse the comprehensive tinkering in both Kurzel’s and, especially, Coen’s mongrel scripts.

Why, for example, do both directors mix and match the witches’ spells? Leaving out the interpolations of act 3, which are probably not part of the original play, is fine, and Coen’s addition of some lines from Thomas Middleton’s The Witch is justified by the original text, but why edit the witches’ original appearance or the conjured visions when Macbeth returns to them for further prophecy in act 4? Those incantations are perfect as written: stop re-arranging them! At least what is left after Coen has mutilated the text is spoken well by Kathryn Hunter, whose mesmerising three-in-one witch is by far the best part of the movie—appropriately otherworldly and legitimately scary.

More inventively, and more superfluously, Coen adds a subplot by turning the minor character of Ross into an Iago figure. Ross enigmatically inserts himself into the murder of Banquo and the massacre of Macduff’s household, assumes protection of Fleance, and in the last scene substitutes for Macduff as the herald of Macbeth’s death. Creative interpretations of the plays are welcome, when the text can bear them. But here, Coen has to mangle the text (Lennox’s speech in act 3, scene 6, is chopped up to make a dialogue with Ross) in order to create a character who confounds the very point of the play.

The drama of Macbeth is in the ambiguous relationship of fate and will. Is Macbeth doomed from the moment the witches prophesy his future? Or is he still master of his actions? And, if so, will the prophecy unfold without his action? (“If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me / Without my stir”) Making Ross a manipulative agent of the action meddles with the interplay of fate and will. It is a crude and superfluous addition. When Welles invented the character of a Holy Father for his movie, the introduction of a Christian counterpoint to the wyrd sisters was unnecessary but provocative. Coen’s Ross, though well-acted by a sinuous Alex Hassell, is just unnecessary.

It is not the only frustrating directorial choice. Throughout the movie, Coen seems obsessed with isolating his actors, denying them the opportunity to play off each other or in crowds. We are rarely treated to more than two characters interacting in the same scene. The main characters are constantly being pulled out of the action and away from each other. As a result, where the text calls for sprawling scenes or tense dialogue, we get sparse soliloquies and disembodied close-ups.

The worst example of this is Macbeth’s encounter with Banquo’s ghost. In the text and in every other production you will remember, this is an actor’s dream, calling for virtuosic acting to show the effects of extreme guilt on a sleepless conscience. The scene is plotted as an intricate psychological dance between Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, and the feasting nobles, each of which sees something different and reacts accordingly. Some directors choose to show Banquo and his “gory locks” to the audience; others give us the same perspective as the nobles who watch Macbeth react with horror to empty space. It can be played effectively either way (Polanski shows the ghost, Kurosawa doesn’t). But Coen makes the only inexcusable choice, which is to remove the scene from the banquet hall altogether. He has Washington play much of the scene (again with an unnecessarily hacked and rearranged text) in an empty room with his back to the audience. It’s a double act of dramatic theft. He steals the scene from Washington and robs us, the audience, of the full potential of his performance.

What else are we denied? A battle, for one. Any battle. And a sense of who the secondary characters are. Malcolm’s testing of Macduff is cut, as is the entire role of Donalbain, so we have no sense of who the English invaders are or why the audience, or the Scottish people, should prefer them to Macbeth. Brendan Gleeson is also wasted as Duncan, a cipher behind a Santa Claus beard, so there is no weight to Macbeth’s betrayal (this is something Kurzel got right, treating us to an extra-textual feast so we could see first-hand the hearty collegiality of David Thewlis’s benignant king).

We don’t really even get a marriage, which says a lot in a production of Macbeth. There are as many ways to interpret the relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth as there are actors or directors, but Coen doesn’t seem particularly interested in it. Again, this is something Kurzel did well. He gave us a young couple grieving the recent death of a child, and Cotillard as a Lady Macbeth on the brink of madness even before Duncan’s murder. In Coen’s movie, we have no idea who the aging couple was before the play begins or what drives them so quickly to murder and treason.

That is the most important question left unasked and unanswered, but there are others. Why does Lady Macbeth suddenly go mad? Why does Macbeth? And what is the relationship between death and sleep (a theme hammered repeatedly in this text and throughout Shakespeare’s plays, but here unexplored)? Coen seems to think that ominous architecture can substitute for human horror. But a shadow weighs more heavily on the mind than on a floor, and to show that you need to give your actors more opportunities to interact and explain themselves to each other and to the audience. This, of course, is what Shakespeare gives us, but not Coen.

Coen’s uninterest in the central relationship is especially unfortunate because Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand are, despite everything, quite good; in the hand of a director who cared more about character, they might have been great. As it is, their performances mostly blend into the bland sets. Each has flashes of passion, but then falls quickly back into somnolent introspection. It is infuriating: I kept talking to the screen: let them act! Even “Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow” falls flat, which is an astonishing achievement for a director handed a great actor and one of the most dramatic short texts in the language.

The witches’ vision admonishes Macbeth to be “bloody, bold, and resolute,” so why do we get a king who is bloodless, placid, and quiescent in the face of fate? The Macbeth of act 5 calls for the Denzel Washington of Training Day. “Why should I play the Roman fool and die / On mine own sword? Whiles I see lives, the gashes / Do better upon them” demands the volcanic delivery of “King Kong ain’t got nothing on me!” You can just see it, can’t you! Well, not here you can’t. It makes sense that Coen cuts that line, as he also cuts “They have tied me to a stake. I cannot fly, / But bear-like, I must fight the course.” I have seen a lot of Macbeths, from what in my mind will always be “the sitcom Macbeth” (on Broadway, starring Kelsey Grammar, Michael Gross, and Ty Burrell) to Sean Bean’s rugged cateran and Patrick Stewart’s more actorly thane. There is no reason Washington shouldn’t rank among the best, except one: Joel Coen.

There is no fight in this Macbeth. Washington’s age serves him well at times, particularly in the depressive moments of his late manic-depressive sleep-deprived paranoia (“I have lived long enough: my way of life / Is fall’n into the sere, the yellow leaf”). When he slumps on his throne, abandoned and awaiting fate, he looks tired and paunchy amid the swirling leaves, blown through the open window from advancing Birnam Wood as the throne room dissolves into a forested snow globe. It is the movie’s most inspired visual effect, but by then there is nothing left to care about. The plot has been aborted, and we are given no reason to root for either Macbeth or Malcolm in the battle that never really comes.

When Washington’s Macbeth does finally confront Macduff, he is already defeated. The revelation of the witches’ perfidy, one of the great “aw, shit!” moments in literature, comes as a flaccid anticlimax. I would have loved to have seen Washington process his oracular betrayal, even in a Coen close-up. Apparently Coen wouldn’t. The realisation barely registers. There is no heroism in Macbeth’s final, futile battle, no last noble defiance of fate and will, revealed here as mockingly united against him. Washington’s Macbeth speaks his last words: “Lay on Macduff” with all the emotion of someone asking to pass the salt.

If this review sounds bitter, it is because squandering riches is a moral crime. Coen has betrayed a great text, wasted great actors, and did not even manage to make (what is a great achievement in itself) a Coen brothers movie. There was a time when audiences rioted at disfavoured productions of Macbeth. In 1849, American audiences roared to home-grown Edwin Forrest, who was said to play the role as “the ferocious chief of a barbarous tribe,” and hissed at the Englishman William Charles Macready’s more “cerebral” performance. More than 30 people were killed and more than 100 injured in the Astor Place riots that ensued.

I am not saying that turning Washington, who could have been a Forrest, into a passionless Macready should provoke quite that reaction, but it would be hard not to sympathize if it did. (And, while I’m fantasizing, it would be nice to live in a world where Shakespeare still mattered enough to spark a riot). Coen’s movie fails in ways that show he didn’t learn the lessons of Welles’s experiment, Kurosawa’s vision, or Polanski’s bloody mess. It is not even as memorable as Kurzel’s beautiful and brooding vision. If it has a redeeming quality, it is second-hand: the failure inevitably sends us back to the text for consolation. It reminds us that Macbeth, the movie, may disappoint, but thank goodness we have always got the play.

Sean Speer: Creeping politicization strengthens the need for PBO reform

Commentary

Last week the Parliamentary Budget Office released a report that analysed the federal government’s Economic and Fiscal Update from late last year. It has since generated significant policy and political attention in a way that may tell us as much about the ill-defined and creeping mandate of the PBO as it does about Ottawa’s finances. 

The PBO’s analysis, which was produced to “assist parliamentarians in their budgetary deliberations”, provides insights into the government’s economic and fiscal projections, its spending plans, and its fiscal transparency, including the current timeliness of its financial reporting. This basic information should be valuable for parliamentarians as they carry out their responsibilities for legislative oversight and parliamentary appropriations in the lead up to the forthcoming federal budget. 

But the PBO’s report drew particular attention for its commentary on the weak justification for the government’s plans for a $100 billion fiscal stimulus over the next three years. The Parliamentary Budget Officer, Yves Giroux, indicated in the report (and accompanying media interviews) that it “appears to me that the rationale for the additional spending initially set aside as ‘stimulus’ no longer exists.” These comments set off a series of news stories about how the PBO had essentially rebuked the government’s profligate spending plans. The Prime Minister was even asked to respond in a subsequent news conference. 

I happen to agree with the PBO’s assessment. It was odd for the Trudeau government to commit to a specific stimulus plan in December 2020 before it had any idea on the timing and scope of the post-pandemic recovery. It’s now clear based on the government’s own economic projections that the size of its stimulus plan and its three-year duration are wholly unjustified and may even have negative inflationary effects.

Yet even though I share the PBO’s critique of Ottawa’s stimulus spending, I also think the PBO and its staff shouldn’t be offering its editorial opinions on government policy or accepting media interviews or generally injecting itself into politics. This recent case is merely another example of a longstanding issue of the PBO’s mission creep from a neutral research capacity on behalf of parliamentarians to a highly publicized and oppositional actor in federal politics. 

I should emphasize here that this isn’t a comment about Yves Giroux who I have had the privilege to work with in Ottawa. He’s smart and decent and well-qualified for the role. Instead it reflects a flaw in how the PBO’s role has been conceptualized since its creation in 2006 and the institutional incentives that have since exacerbated this initial mischaracterization.

It’s worth remembering that the PBO started as a Conservative Party policy promise in the 2006 election campaign. It was characterized at the time as part of a sweeping set of reforms to improve financial transparency in response to the Sponsorship Scandal.  

The campaign promise was subsequently effectuated in the omnibus legislation, the Federal Accountability Act, which created a number of new offices (including the Commissioner of Lobbying, Public Sector Integrity Commissioner, and the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner) and obligations (including post-employment restrictions and new party donation rules) to strengthen accountability and transparency within the federal government. 

Although the PBO was framed as part of this broader agenda, it was never quite a perfect fit. The real case for the new office was less about corruption and more about enhancing capacity for parliamentarians to carry out their roles including voting on budgetary estimates, advancing Private Member’s business, and generally fulfilling their responsibility for legislative oversight of the government. 

MPs have small office budgets and minimal capacity to understand and track appropriations bills or to be able to develop their own policy proposals independent of the government. This creates a powerful asymmetry that has contributed to the centralization of our political system and a smothering form of caucus discipline. The PBO should in theory empower parliamentarians to better scrutinize government legislation on one hand and enable greater policy entrepreneurship within parliament on the other hand. 

Yet its inclusion in the post-sponsorship response was in hindsight an impediment to this role. It necessarily led to an emphasis on “promoting greater budget transparency and accountability” and an underlying assumption that the government’s fiscal projections can’t be trusted and need to be challenged. This shifted the PBO’s focus away from acting as a neutral research capacity for MPs and contributed an adversarial ethos from its early beginnings. 

Its founding legislation did stipulate that the office should undertake economic and fiscal research on behalf of parliamentary committees and produce cost estimates for parliamentarians. But these activities were subordinated to “provid[ing] independent analysis to the Senate and to the House of Commons about the state of the nation’s finances, the estimates of the government and trends in the national economy.” 

Since 2017, the PBO has also had a role in helping federal political parties cost out some of their platform commitments. (As I’ve previously written for The Hub, I’m generally supportive of this new function, though the imperfect experience of the last federal election suggests that it’s still a work in progress.) 

The key point though is that the emphasis on the PBO’s role in producing analysis on “trends in the national economy” has granted the office tremendous scope to proactively weigh in on a range of policy issues. It has used this vague mandate to essentially inject itself into political debates by contributing editorial commentary on what amounts to a set of normative issues. 

Is the deficit too big? Are spending increases justified? Should Ottawa spend on X versus Y? These are fundamental questions for which there’s no shortage of opinion in Canadian life. It’s far from clear that there’s a market gap that requires filling by a taxpayer-funded institution. That successive Parliamentary Budget Officers have frequently sat for television and radio interviews is a sign that the office has come to see their role as extending beyond parliament and their audience as more than just parliamentarians. 

There was perceived political upside to elevate the PBO and its work for the political parties

Legislative amendments in 2017 to bring greater clarity to the PBO’s mandate (which the office opposed), including a requirement that it produce an “annual work plan” which is reviewed and tabled by the Speakers of the House of Commons and the Senate, essentially left its broad and general mandate in place. 

These recent reforms have even arguably narrowed the scope for the PBO to support individual parliamentarians by limiting this work to when parliament is sitting. The net effect is to inadvertently double down on its adversarial role of second-guessing the government’s economic and fiscal projections rather than primarily serving as an external and independent policy development capacity for individual MPs.

Powerful incentives have also pushed in this direction. The parliamentary press gallery and opposition parties responded positively to the PBO’s early oppositionalism which only served to reinforce it. It’s notable, for instance, that the 2015 Liberal Party and NDP campaign platforms committed to strengthening the PBO’s independence in light of its conflicts with the previous Conservative government. There was perceived political upside to elevate the PBO and its work for the political parties and this, in turn, raised the profile of the PBO and encouraged its unique form of communications and media engagement. It was a virtuous (or perhaps vicious) cycle that essentially validated the PBO’s adversarial and public-facing model.  

The challenge, of course, is that the PBO’s highly publicized role creates a set of political economy conditions in which no government is prepared to assume the political risk of reforming its legislative mandate. There’s no upside to challenging one of the government’s highest-profile and well-researched critics. The risk though is that we end up with stasis in which everyone essentially agrees that the status quo is flawed but no one is prepared to say so. As the Parliamentary Budget Officer continues to be a high-profile political actor, the inevitable outcome is his or her oversized profile will make it even more challenging for parliament to enact sensible reforms to the office’s mandate, focus, and activities. 

There’s a strong case for a PBO that conceptualizes its role more narrowly as helping parliamentarians in evaluating the economic and fiscal costs of new and pending government legislation. There also ought to be a role in supporting individual MPs in their own policy work as well as providing analysis and cost estimates for party platform development. These are core functions that solve for a “market failure.” 

Such an office could be a key part of a broader agenda to rebalance the relative power of MPs and the government. The PBO can in short be a key institution in the renewal of Canada’s parliamentary democracy rather than another voice in the country’s acrimonious political debate. 

But the only way for such institutional reform to happen is if the different political parties represented in the House of Commons come together on a shared set of legislative changes to clarify and circumscribe the PBO’s role. A multi-partisan consensus is a crucial ingredient. Any meaningful reform is otherwise bound to devolve into partisan one-upmanship. The consequence will be that the PBO continues to operate as a primarily oppositional voice in federal politics and the policy capacity of parliamentarians is harmed as a result. 

Just because one agrees with the PBO’s criticism of the government doesn’t mean that it ought to be weighing into political issues. Both ideas can be right. So is the case for reform.