Thursday, October 18, 2012

Director Spotlight #11.6: Roman Polanski's Macbeth

Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. October’s director is master thriller/horror filmmaker Roman Polanski.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the movie in question.

Grade: 91 (A)

Roman Polanski was on top of the world after the release of Rosemary’s Baby. The film won an Oscar for Ruth Gordon’s performance, and Polanski was nominated for Best Screenplay. The director had a new project lined up, The Day of the Dolphin (a film about a dolphin trained to kill the president…no, really). To top it all off, Polanski was happily married to Sharon Tate and expecting his first child. But when Tate and Polanski’s unborn son were murdered by the Manson family, the director’s world came crashing down- he pulled out of directing The Day of the Dolphin (eventually made by Mike Nichols) and retreated from the spotlight for a year. Polanski came roaring back in 1971 with an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth that was overshadowed by the director’s history. Never mind that now- Polanski’s Macbeth is perhaps the definitive film version of the play (only Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood would rival it), and one of his finest films.

Macbeth (Jon Finch) has been a crucial player in King Duncan’s (Nicholas Selby) war against the treacherous Thane of Cawdor, whose title is passed onto Macbeth. But Macbeth meets a group of witches who also prophesize his ascension to the throne. Macbeth and his wife (Francesca Annis) murder Duncan and pass the blame onto his sons Malcolm and Donalbain (Stephen Chase and Paul Shelley). But some, like the honorable Macduff (Terence Bayler) and Macbeth’s friend Banquo (Martin Shaw) suspect Macbeth, and as the new king grows increasingly power mad and paranoid, his world comes crashing down.

The challenge in any film Shakespeare adaptation is in creating an original and distinctive work out of a play that has been produced and reproduced for four centuries, and yet Polanski and co-screenwriter Kenneth Tynan make a unique film. Drawing heavily from the sustained tension of Hitchcock, the surrealism of Luis Bunuel, and the expressionistic touches of Orson Welles (not to mention Laurence Olivier’s exquisite adaptation of Hamlet), Polanski turns Macbeth into an atmospheric horror film a la Rosemary’s Baby, playing with his earlier themes of where madness meets the occult. His decision to cast mostly unknown British stage actors pays off as well. There are no star turns or distractions in this version, only a stellar cast of thespians giving their all for a fascinating take on a great story.

What’s remarkable about Polanski’s Macbeth is how the director manages to make a deeply claustrophobic and disturbing film even on a grand scale. There’s not enough room in Scotland for these great personalities, and the fog of death hangs over the country even before Macbeth makes his fateful encounter with the witches. The director makes great use of deep focus to show how characters try to hide their true intentions from one another- particularly great is a scene in which Macbeth and Lady Macbeth plot Duncan’s death not behind closed doors, but in the middle of a room, where their musicians entertain Duncan but a few feet away. Polanski’s decision to turn most of the soliloquies into internal monologues (a la Olivier’s Hamlet) proves a strong choice as well, giving the film a hushed tension and more psychologically realistic feel. Where Polanski truly makes his mark, however, is in a horrifying dream sequence reminiscent of those in Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby, where all reason has left the world and Macbeth learns that his reign will be short-lived and brutal.

Brutal is an appropriate way to describe Polanski’s film: even for what’s one of Shakespeare’s grisliest plays, this Macbeth’s level of violence is deeply unsettling. Doom and dread hangs over the world like an ever-present specter, with the witches less as instigators than as a force that highlight man’s cruelest tendencies. When Macbeth sneaks into Duncan’s chamber (in a scene only described in Shakespeare’s play), he is framed as the angel of death, towering above the vulnerable king before his dagger comes down over and over again. Banquo’s murder at the hands of Macbeth’s thugs is equally nasty, but it’s nothing compared to the slaughter of Macduff’s family in a sequence that plays uncomfortably close to the murders of Sharon Tate, her unborn child, and their friends. When asked by a crew member if the blood in the scene was excessive, Polanski morbidly replied, “I know about bleeding. You should have seen my house last summer.”

The violence of Macbeth reflects not only Polanski’s personal misfortune, but the tenor of the times in which it was made. Intentional or not, the tale of political intrigue in Macbeth reflects an era filled with political turmoil and conspiracy theory. The promise of power is irresistible to Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, but that’s in every adaptation of the play. Perhaps more noteworthy is how Polanski and Tynan changed the character of Ross- a minor character and frequent messenger in the play, the film’s version is a conspirer and political opportunist who only supports men as far as they he thinks they can help him. When Banquo is murdered, Ross is the man Macbeth trusts to make sure it is carried out. When Macduff’s family is murdered, it is Ross who lets the murderers by not long after his assurance to Lady Macduff that all would be well- it is betrayal of the worst kind. When Ross finally does betray Macbeth, it is not out of morality, but out of a snub- Ross is not made Thane of Cawdor, and so he sides with Malcolm, the logical replacement for the usurper. When Malcolm is finally crowned, it’s none other than the political opportunist and murderer who places the crown upon his head, with the rest of the group none the wiser.

Madness is inherent in any production of Macbeth- the madness of Lady Macbeth as she sleepwalks (nude in this iteration) and tries to wash invisible blood off of her hands, the madness of gatherings of witches, and the madness borne of paranoia. But a master of ambiguity like Polanski is especially gifted at bringing that theme out- when Macbeth sees Banquo’s ghost, it could just as easily be the sign of an unsound mind as that of the supernatural. Above all else, the madness in Polanski’s Macbeth is in a world without order, one that makes no sense and has no reason for its turmoil beyond greed, the nastiest of ambition, and the darkest side of human nature. Why else would innocent women and children be murdered? The best new touch in this version- Macbeth’s death doesn’t bring the end. Even as Malcolm is crowned, Polanski cuts to Donalbain, Malcolm’s own brother, stumbling upon the witches much as Macbeth did. And so the cycle of violence, betrayal, and death continues, from now until the end of time. 

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