Macbeth: Something Wicked

On Film / Essays — Sep 24, 2014

Roman Polanski’s Macbeth (1971) begins with an image of the rising sun, reddening the clouds like blood. By the next shot, the sun has gone, not to reappear until late in the film, and then ironically: the morning after Macbeth, the murderous usurper of the throne of Scotland, learns from the witches that “none of woman born shall harm” him and that he “shall never vanquished be until Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill shall come against him” is bright and beautiful, but the hope he feels is false. The witches can’t be trusted, and neither can the sun. The truth of Macbeth is in gloom and shadow and dead of night, with which the eye of this filmmaker was, from the beginning, well acquainted. Polanski’s camera probes the murky depths of Shakespeare’s tragedy as it had also prowled in the dark, confined spaces of the homelier stories of Knife in the Water (1962), Repulsion (1965), Cul-de-sac (1966), and Rosemary’s Baby (1968), and creates a sense of claustrophobia that is entirely appropriate to the clenched spirit of this play. Macbeth, Laurence Olivier once wrote, “is compact, a perfectly rounded piece”—it is, in fact, the shortest of Shakespeare’s major tragedies—and is, he said, “visually superb, which made me wonder what Shakespeare would have given us had Hollywood existed in his time.”

There’s nothing very “Hollywood” about this picture, shot in Wales and England with a British cast and a Polish director, but it certainly provides the sort of experience Olivier had in mind: it looks and moves as if the story had originally been conceived as a film, not a stage production. The play is, as Olivier suggests, as movie-ready as any of Shakespeare’s works. The story’s relatively simple: in eleventh- century Scotland, the title character (played by Jon Finch), a lord and a fearsome warrior, hears a prophecy that he will become king and, encouraged by his wife (Francesca Annis), acts on his “vaulting ambition” and kills the reigning monarch; guilt, madness, and more murder ensue, and the throne is eventually restored to its rightful heir. There aren’t as many characters to introduce (and keep track of) as there are in, say, Hamlet; the soliloquies are pretty short; and the Elizabethan wordplay isn’t nearly as dense as it sometimes is in Shakespeare. (There’s none of the multilayered punning that makes the comedies, in particular, almost impossible to translate to the screen.) Even so, Polanski and his coscreenwriter, Kenneth Tynan, had to trim and streamline the text to give it a more filmlike pace. Tynan, a former drama critic who was at the time working with Olivier at Britain’s National Theatre, told Polanski in a letter that “the number one Macbeth problem is to see the events of the film from his point of view,” and that’s precisely how this screenplay is constructed, with the focus always on the protagonist and his narrowing vision of the world. Especially in the first part of the movie, which takes place mostly in Macbeth’s castle in Inverness, we feel, God help us, as if we were inside the head of the assassin, first deciding whether to do the deed and then gaping in horror when it’s done. “’Twere well it were done quickly,” Macbeth tells himself pre-murder, but in the film it seems to take forever, because it’s a psychological turning point for him—a moment after which his life cannot go on as it has. (In the play, the killing takes place offstage.)

As Olivier did in Hamlet (1948), Polanski shoots the protagonist’s soliloquies largely as interior monologues, with the voice-overs only occasionally interrupted by a line or two spoken aloud. In these scenes, he often puts Finch, in close-up, in the foreground, to the left or, more typically, the right of the wide screen, and lets the camera follow the actor around, as if wandering along with his disordered thoughts. And in perhaps another homage to Olivier’s Hamlet—a movie that Polanski has said impressed him in his youth—the film uses an extraordinary number of complex tracking shots, roaming the galleries and corridors of Macbeth’s castle, to ominous, unsettling effect: this cold place feels, as Olivier’s Elsinore did, like a haunted house.

When there’s action, it’s fierce and bloody, as it should be. The deadly ambush of Banquo and his son Fleance, and Macbeth’s climactic battle with Macduff (not “of woman born,” as it happens, but “from his mother’s womb untimely ripped”), are terrifically well staged, realistic, and suspenseful. Some credit for this must go to the fight choreographer, William Hobbs, plucked from his usual duties at the National Theatre, but the scenes are also superbly edited—turbulent and yet absolutely lucid. Clarity seems, in fact, to be the governing aesthetic of this production. Shakespeare’s language, which in other attempts to bring his work to the screen has sometimes overmatched the audience’s ability to take it in, flows effortlessly in this Macbeth, limpid as a mountain stream. The brutal fact, which Polanski and Tynan grasped, is that this language, rich in metaphor and imagery, doesn’t really need anything that cinematic art can bring to it; if you read Macbeth, or watch a good stage production, the movie makes itself, in your mind. So a film that focuses too narrowly on the words, or on the nuances of the actors’ performances, is in a sense a superfluous thing, a neither-here-nor-there sort of artifact—an illustration rather than an aesthetic object with a life of its own. For that reason, some of the best Shakespeare films have been those in which the words are, in a sense, irrelevant, like Akira Kurosawa’s Japanese-language Throne of Blood (1957), based on Macbeth, and Ran (1985), which is a version of King Lear. In both of those films, the emphasis is, necessarily, on story and action, and the poetry is visual—all Kurosawa’s. They’re not Shakespeare, exactly, but they’re something, and they’re great.

Olivier, thoroughly a man of the theater, was perfectly aware that his movie about the prince of Denmark was not, and could not be, Shakespeare’s Hamlet. He took to calling it “a study in Hamlet,” and that’s maybe the best way to think of Polanski’s foray into this treacherous territory—as a study in Macbeth. Although the acting is solid throughout (and Annis, an unusually soft-voiced, seductive Lady Macbeth, is better than solid), greater performances of the play have been committed to film and videotape; Trevor Nunn’s famous Royal Shakespeare Company production, with Ian McKellen and Judi Dench, functionally recorded for television in 1979, is by any standard a stronger, deeper reading of the play. (McKellen’s bitter, sorrowful rendering of Macbeth’s “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” soliloquy is as brilliant a piece of Shakespearean acting as you will ever see.) But Polanski’s Macbeth manages to do what Olivier’s Hamlet and only a very few other films have done: to use Shakespeare’s words as the raw material for a vision that is distinct from that of the original poet but coherent and powerful in itself. The perceptive Shakespeare scholar A. C. Bradley, who judged Macbeth “the most vehement, the most concentrated, perhaps we may say the most tremendous of the tragedies,” wrote of the play’s distinctive atmosphere: “The desolation of the blasted heath, the design of the witches, the guilt in the hero’s soul, the darkness of the night seem to emanate from one and the same source.” That’s a precise description of this Macbeth’s mood, both verbal and visual. The “source” is, of course, Shakespeare’s highly developed sense of the evil that men do. But it’s also Roman Polanski’s. The movie’s bleak beauties are unmistakably his.

This Macbeth has had a strange career. It’s a famously unlucky play, and, true to form, the stars didn’t align well for the movie in 1971. The American distributor chose to release it in January, a traditionally dire month to open a movie (“cinematic suicide,” Polanski called it), and the box-office returns were predictably bad. Good press might have improved matters some, but although the film got a few respectful notices from the New York critics, many others wrote of it dismissively, for a variety of lousy reasons. It was the first film Polanski made after the horrific slaughter of his wife, Sharon Tate, and several others in his Los Angeles home in 1969, and lazy critics tended to interpret the movie’s handful of gory scenes as reflections of the director’s personal experience, rather than as faithful and appropriate re-creations of the play’s terrible violence. It was also the first picture he had directed since the hit horror movie Rosemary’s Baby, about a satanic cult in New York City, which prompted Time magazine’s reviewer to write of Macbeth and its witches, “Polanski is most at home dealing with black magic.” Still others chose to focus on Polanski’s (very discreet) use of nudity in Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene, and to suggest that this perfectly reasonable aesthetic choice had something to do with the source of the movie’s financing, Playboy Productions; this snide interpretation doesn’t, somehow, account for the wizened, distinctly noncenterfold nakedness of the witches in the hallucinatory “none of woman born” scene.

But the years have been kind to Polanski’s Macbeth. The novelist Martin Amis, not the gentlest of critics, introduced the film at BAMcine?matek in Brooklyn in 2013 and told an interviewer at the time, “I really think the film is without weaknesses.” Another novelist, John Sayles, who is also a movie director, went on record in DGA Quarterly in 2007: “I think it’s a great piece of filmmaking.” The story of Macbeth, this merciless examination of “vaulting ambition” and its consequences, is, besides, one that seems especially resonant in these grim days. Just in the past few years, there have been an unusual number of productions, onstage and for film and television; actors as diverse as Alan Cumming, Ethan Hawke, Sam Worthington, David Morrissey, Patrick Stewart, James McAvoy, Kenneth Branagh, and Michael Fassbender have felt compelled to take a crack at playing Shakespeare’s blood-streaked, guilt-riven tragic hero, in a wide range of settings. Without the ambient cultural noise that distorted the reception of the movie four decades ago, we can see that this Macbeth’s fearsome vision of the lust for power is credible and, to our collective sorrow, relevant to every time in human history. If anyone wonders whether a great work of literature can become a great film, Roman Polanski’s version of “the Scottish play” is—to borrow a phrase from another of Shakespeare’s tragic protagonists—the ocular proof. This vigorous, sun-starved Macbeth sheds its own kind of pitiless light.