Return to Dunsinane

Fiona wanted to do a direct comparison between Joel Coen’s and Roman Polanski’s THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH, so we ran the Criterion Blu of the latter, and my opinion of it rose considerably. (The picture upgrade on that disc, over the DVD my frame-grabs are from, is massive: Gilbert Taylor, who had previously shot REPULSION, was one of Polanski’s finest collaborators.)

The Coen film is a rather compelling blend of film and theatre — everything it does with its visual approach seems to me just right, building on Olivier’s Shakespeare films and Welles and Kurosawa. It does take some textual hints from Polanski and Tynan’s adaptation, building on the idea of Ross as a schemer and traitor to both sides, something not specified in Shakespeare but which makes sense and allows him to grow from a Basil Exposition kind of attendant lord into a proper dimensional character.

Polanski does something very literal, very blunt — he decides to make Dark Age Scotland as visceral and real as he can. Olivier had considered doing this for HENRY V but worried that the audience would say, “Okay, so that’s a tree and that’s a house and that’s a horse… why is everyone talking so funny?” Polanski’s Horrible Histories visualisation begs that question very urgently indeed, and also creates unnecessary problems out of the asides and soliloquies. Can Macbeth talk to the camera/audience, and if not, what does he do instead.

In fact, we see in ALFIE that an actor can do asides in an otherwise naturalistic film, and it’s a device I’d like to see tried more. (It would have been an absolutely natural thing to try in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, frinstance) Polanski has Jon Finch sometimes do quite long internal monologues, making faces to try to match his dubbed-on thoughts, something I never find satisfying or engaging. More successful, because more playful, are the segues from this device into spoken monologue, the character talking to himself like John McClane in DIE HARD (another besieged warrior with marital troubles). Polanski is always keen to credit Olivier as an influence, so I suspect this is borrowed from the similar tricks in HAMLET. But why Polanski didn’t consider using some of that film’s stripped-down theatricality I don’t know. I guess he’s just more of a realist, and not a man of the theatre like Sir Larry.

But rewatching a film is great for seeing past the things that bother you on a first viewing. Polanski’s whole aesthetic may be sort of counter-productive to doing Shakespeare, but he goes at it very enthusiastically indeed, and if the grit and sharpness are an odd fit for the iambic pentameters, they’re surprisingly close to the sharp focus of outright hallucination — Polanski seems to be using his 60s experience of LSD to give us freak-out visions that render Macbeth’s experiences, particularly with the witches, horrifyingly up-close and alarming.

And the casting of young actors, which was absurdly controversial at the time, seems like a no-brainer now. Older actors have more experience of both life and acting and can often do more than the photogenic youngsters. But what they can’t do is BE YOUNG. I think a middle-aged Macbeth could work if you play him as desperately grabbing what seems like his last chance at success, but the whole question of his wanting an heir becomes academic, an anaemic character motivation, if he has a menopausal wife.

I found myself liking Jon Finch’s performance, bad wig aside, more than before. He’s a star who should have been huge, but his biggest roles, this and FRENZY, didn’t do him the most justice, I always felt. His perf in THE FINAL PROGRAMME, on the other hand, MY GOD that is a star turn. But now I think I was too harsh on his Macbeth: there didn’t seem a single point where he didn’t have exactly the right take on the text.

Francesca Annis is also terrific: she seems readily able to seduce Macbeth into his crimes, as opposed to Frances McDormand’s Lady M who essentially bullies her husband forward. The text tells us she has nursed a baby but has no children now, but there seems no reason why she couldn’t be expected to have more kids and so Macbeth can realistically desire to see his children inherit the throne from him.

Annis looks not much like Sharon Tate but I found myself reminded of her a good deal, maybe because I recently saw Tate standing on a castle tower in EYE OF THE DEVIL.

What everyone used to talk about is the violence, which there is a lot of. It’s very matter-of-fact. The men barely react to someone being hanged or bludgeoned to death in front of them, and for the women and kids there’s always bear-baiting. The play is certainly full of mayhem but Shakespeare’s attitude to it is probably a little different — in Shakespearean tragedy, the normal order of things typically goes awry, and you get fathers against sons, eye-gougings, and so on. At the end, typically order is restored and everyone left alive is happy. A bit sad about all the mayhem but happy it’s over. Shakespeare’s politics are roughly speaking conservative — well, he had a monarch to please. Macbeth seems to have been intended to appeal to King James, who was a big believer in witches — a bunch of women in Scotland had just been tortured and killed for supposedly cursing him. Fortunately, there’s a lot more to Shakespeare than his politics.

Well, Polanski seems to see the order of things as continuous violence and chaos, which, given his life experiences is understandable (everyone thinks of the Manson killings here, but the Holocaust is at least as important, and though RP has denied that the film was his direct response to his wife’s death, he’s admitted that the behaviour of Macbeth’s henchman when entering the Macduff family home was based on that of an SS officer he witnessed in occupied Poland. So Duncan’s reign is unspeakably violent and horrible, Macbeth’s is maybe slightly worse, then he’s killed and it looks like the witches are going to recruit another patsy so the cycle of carnage can continue. Joel Coen steals that idea outright for his new film. It’s very modern and very unshakespearean, but like I say, Shakespeare’s politics are kind of his least appealing aspect.

(The biggest exception may be KING LEAR, where the few survivors are so shattered by what they’ve been through (The biggest exception may be KING LEAR, where the few survivors are so shattered by what they’ve been through and seen, none of them have the heart to really take stock of the situation, which seems somehow apocalyptic.)

I’ve written elsewhere about how Polanski films have a tendency to arc back to their own beginnings, swallowing their tails — from TWO MEN AND A WARDROBE through REPULSION, CUL DE SAC, FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS, PIRATES. Even if they don’t literally end in the spot they began at, or near it, often the ending is a call-back in some way — CHINATOWN begins with its main title, and ends in Chinatown. It’s a rather despairing vision of the world, where we always end up back where we started only substantially the worse for wear.

Polanski and his co-adaptor, Kenneth Tynan, have not only moved Macbeth’s decapitation from discretely offstage to graphically onscreen, an almost essential change which nearly every filmmaker has followed, varying only in their explicitness, he’s chopped all the summing-up by the survivors which reassures the play’s audience that the line of kings will now continue in a legitimate way. Most other movie adaptations follow the same pattern, based on a reading of the play’s TRUE subject as Macbeth himself, not the crown of Scotland. When he’s dead, it’s mostly over.

One of Polanski’s most brilliant and alarming touches is the aftermath of Finch’s lopping, with his head whooshing about on the end of a pike, and handheld shots that COULD be his point of view, as if consciousness has not quite fled and he has a chance to take in, in a wobbly sort of way, the scene of his death.

At times, the film’s visual ideas clash with the playscript — when the witches say “Hover through the fog and filthy air, before they exeunt, it’s pretty clear Shakespeare’s suggesting they’re flying, as witches are said to do. Here, they just say it, and don’t even waddle off: it seems to be just something witches like saying. (The Coen film has no broomsticks, but strongly implies that the witch/es can turn into crows.) And the fights are terrifically staged by the great Bill Hobbs, but I don’t quite get why Banquo’s injuries should be so different from what the murderers’ describe in their report to Macbeth. Interestingly, when he sees visions of Banquo, some of them accurately show the axe in the back which he has no way of knowing about. But witchcraft can do that.

Deft little additions make Lady M’s swift descent into madness almost TOO gradual. I chatted with Angela Allen, the film’s script supervisor, who spoke somewhat sceptically about Polanski’s temper tantrums and karate chops (he’d had lessons from Bruce Lee and could snap great beams with the edge of his little hand), and while she was full of praise for Annis, she felt Finch knew the performance he WANTED to give, but perhaps couldn’t quite reach. But he’s physical, brooding, handsome, and he can speak the verse. And he probably gets over more of the character’s slow corruption than the other big movie Macs. “Macbeth is a play about the slow decay of the moral sense,” says Ltnt Kinderman in EXORCIST III. But he practically starts off with regicide, regarded as the worst crime possible in Shakespeare’s day. Say rather it’s about guilt, which destroys Lady Macbeth’s sanity and turns her husband, progressively, into a monster. Because one way of dealing with guilt is to deny it, to keep doing the stuff that makes you feel guilty, trying to prove that there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s not a GOOD way of dealing with it, but it’s quite popular.

Polanski faithfully stages the spectre at the banquet just as the text suggests (Macbeth doesn’t sit because there’s somebody in his chair, but nobody else can see this person…), only adding some weird special effects so that the ghost is differently horrible each time we see it. And our view of it is tied to Macbeth’s — it’s only seen in his POV shots.

(Important to keep things straight — Banquo’s ghost is a manifestation of Macbeth’s guilt, which he’s not emotionally smart enough to process. In the Coen film, the ghost is associated with crows, and this with the witches. This is quite, QUITE wrong.)

Best of all, perhaps, is the witches’ sabbat, a Goyaesque bad trip. The mirrors within mirrors, a giddy fast-motion rush of shots spliced together with artful opticals, perfectly visualises Macbeth’s cry of “Will the line stretch out to the crack of doom?”

I’m glad I got over my feeling that Polanski went at this the wrong way. I still think he did, but he went at it so aggressively he basically made it work.

THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH stars Jerry Cornelius; Lady Jessica; Judge John Deed; The Bloody Barron; Keats; Adolph Bolm; King Vishtaspa; Engywook; Mr. Tupper; Book Person: Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’ (uncredited); and Robin Hood Junior.

8 Responses to “Return to Dunsinane”

  1. The great thing about Shakespeare is that there’s no defintiver version of the text. Talents as diverse as Olivier, Welles, Kurosawa, Derek Jarman and Roman polanski havd had at him to great effect.
    John Finch is a curious actor. Seemingly solid he’s rather eccentric around the edges– which is why he was a great chise for the anti-here of Hitchock’ “Frenzy”

  2. Interesting that Polanski chose not to use Scottish accents, when Finch does an intermittently good one in Sunday Bloody Sunday.

    Annis reckoned Finch didn’t care enough to really push his career. I can’t understand why he wasn’t huge anyway. Ill health certainly hampered him from the end of the seventies onwards.

    Some of Shakespeare’s plays, like Lear, exist in radically different texts, enough to cause real doubt about the accuracy of those we only have one version of. And yes, they’re remarkably open to different interpretations, a function of their richness and of Shakespeare’s reluctance to come right out and give us his point of view. Some of the authorship debate may be caused by his tendency to stay in the shadows.

  3. Tony Williams Says:

    I remember being at the press show in Manchester at the time. The contemporary publicity explained the age difference by pointing out that life was brutal and short in those days so the casting reflected the peirod. Also, when the London press asked why there was so much blood in the film, Polanski silenced them with his response, “You should have seen my house in Beverly Hills!”

  4. “Shados”? Possibly. But thatdoesn’t excuse the egrious efforts to supply Shakepeare with a “noble” identity and by doing so give the class systeman extra special boots.

  5. Simon Kane Says:

    The one argument for classing Macbeth’s vision of Banquo as something supernatural is that it’s not his first. It all depends on why you think he suddenly sees a floating dagger. I won’t lie, I’ve never really got the play. I’ve never bought the guilt. But I love what you say about repeating a crime to get used to it.
    “Fortunately, there’s a lot more to Shakespeare than his politics.” Well quite, but while performing my solo Shakespeares on youtube, I was thrilled to rediscover how non-boring his Roman plays are. Without a crown to revere, he actually turned out some political work that was almost repulsively acute. And Ralph Fiennes’ “Coriolanus” might be the most succesful hyper-real filming of Shakespeare I’ve ever seen, and also just straight up most successful.

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