Criterion: Macbeth

MACBETH, ROMAN POLANSKI, 1971

This entry will be a little different. I won’t try to establish and discuss the major themes of this work. Scholars, far smarter, more educated, and better read than I, have been exploring Shakespeare for centuries. Plenty of ink has been printed on the subject to Macbeth, and my take having is far from academic having read some of the play in High School and now seen interpretations from Polanski and Kurasawa. Instead I’ll look at this as a unique representation of the bard, and as a large-scale epic, which is truly unique compared to other Shakespeare adaptations.

Polanski’s take is far more accessible than most Shakespeare on film, and has more in common with Monty Python and the Holy Grail or Game of Throne than it does a traditional Olivier Shakespeare adaptation. It is a medieval epic on a grand scale with plenty of action, royal intrigue, brutality, and yes, even nudity (although not what you’d expect). The dialog is directly from Shakespeare, but it is spoken in a different manner. Rather than have the actors digress with poetic speeches, they use much of Shakespeare’s words as voiceover to show their interior dialog and establish their thoughts and motivations. As a result of these slight diversions, the material is more consumable and flows smoothly. It’s more engaging and less perplexing, yet it still isn’t dumbed down for a mainstream audience. It is distinctly Shakespeare, but presented through the lens of a young, trouble director in Polanski.

The elephant in the room is that this was Polanski’s first work after his wife and friend were savagely and brutally murdered by the Manson family a couple of summers ago. Some of the violent choices he made for this movie are curious given what he was dealing with. Some of the departures from the original are to show more violence. There is one scene in particular when a family gets slaughtered in their own home that had to have been inspired by the events of that fateful summer. You have to wonder whether this was a cathartic way of dealing with the tragedy. The one thing we can tell is that there is a personal edge that comes through the brutal telling of the story.

Despite his personal tragedies, this is a period of transition in the career of Polanski. He was already among the top directors at the time, having churned out a number of hits. Some of them were artistic (Repulsion, Cul-de-Sac), while he had also experimented with mainstream genre (Rosemary’s Baby). Macbeth was not only more literary than his previous works, but also his first attempt at an epic. He does quite a bit with a small budget, using elaborate, genuine costumes, glorious sets, and amazing cinematography. We can see here the filmmaker who would eventually make Tess and even The Pianist, many years later.

As a piece of art, Macbeth is up there with the best of the Shakespeare adaptations, and it’s a shame that few director’s (no offense to Branaugh) have been up to the task of putting together such an ambitious and daring treatment of the material since.

Film Rating: 8/10

Supplements:

Toll and Trouble: Making “Macbeth.” This new hour-long documentary touches on a lot of interesting subjects. One of which was how the film got made in the first place. No major studios were interested, so the surprising financier was Playboy. That led to a little bit of pressure and some stigma that would be added to the film, but also made it a little unique. Eventually they gave Roman plenty of artistic freedom. Also featured are Francesca Annis who played Lady Macbeth. She talks frankly about the mood on the set and her thoughts of doing nudity for the production. Martin Shaw talks at length about the project, and speaks about how Jon Finch came to be cast as Macbeth (he met Polanski on a plane), and how good he turned out.

Polanski Meets Macbeth: This documentary shows plenty of behind-the-scenes footage of the production, ranging from directing large scale acting scenes, to seeing how the cast and crew are fed (and hearing the complaints of the people who feed them.) This documentary isn’t enthralling, yet it is neat to see how much footage was captured from the shoot.

Dick Cavett Interview with Kenneth Tynan: This interview was conducted prior to Macbeth’s release, and most of the interview is not about the Polanski project. They discuss it briefly toward the end.

British Television “Acquarius”: Polanski and theater director Peter Coe discuss their Macbeth projects. The former is of course the Polanski epic, while the latter is “Black Macbeth” which couldn’t be anymore different.

Criterion Rating: 8.5/10

Posted on October 8, 2014, in Criterions, Film and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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