Wednesday, May 1, 2013

MacBeth (1971)

This will be the first entry of Shakespeare Month, in which every entry on this blog throughout May will be Shakespeare-related. Why May? I recently returned from a trip to England where I went to Stratford-upon-Avon, visited Shakespeare's childhood home, and saw the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of As You Like It, and I'm feeling inspired after it all.

MacBeth is considered to be one of William Shakespeare's four great tragedies (the other three being Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear). It is the tale of ambitious Scottish lord MacBeth who after being told by three witches that he will become king, is goaded by Lady MacBeth into murdering King Duncan. When the deed is done and MacBeth becomes king, he resorts to increasingly tyrannical and mad behavior to retain his uneasy grip on the crown, inciting hatred and retribution from his subjects.

This 1971 adaptation of the play arrives directed by Roman Polanski, his first film production since the murder of his wife Sharon Tate and their unborn child by Charles Manson's followers in1969. I bring that up because it's kind of the elephant in the room; it's practically impossible to watch this version of MacBeth and not at least suspect that Polanski was working out some personal issues by making it. The violence is ramped up, the atmosphere is one of doom and gloom, and the catharsis inherent in the Bard's tragedies has been replaced by nihilism, despair, and corruption. This is not the story about a nobleman's downfall but of a nasty, paranoid lunatic who gets what he deserved.

Plays by their nature are bound by the limitations of the stage. One set has to serve as multiple locations, entrances and exits have to be accounted for, and dialogue has to explain offstage events. Polanski, as he has proven on numerous occasions, is a master filmmaker, and he uses the freedom and technique of the cinema to tell his story. Theatre is often built on language and performance, but this MacBeth is dependent on direction, production design, and cinematography. Imagery, not words, rules.

Unlike a play, the film is shot on location in the rain-swept landscape. The sky is filled with storm clouds, rain pounds the terrain, and the sun, when it appears, which is not often, is blood red. This is not the beautiful, majestic Scotland of Braveheart or Rob Roy with its rolling, sweeping green fields and rivers; it's a dank, depressing, barren, empty wasteland full images of death and hardship. After the witches open the movie with an ominous spell, we see the results of a battle. Corpses are strewn about, one survivor is flogged to death when he moves, and we first see MacBeth in the foreground as a line of traitors are hung in the background.

Polanski also makes extensive use of special effects to depict the more fantastical elements of the play. Banquo's (Martin Shaw) ghost becomes a bloodied corpse that shambles through the frame and quickly vanishes into thin air. MacBeth's visions when he visits the witches are a hallucinogenic nightmare of frightening imagery that drown the screen: a baby removed bloodily from the womb, a knight in a suit of armor crumbling into nothingness, and a series of mirrors reflecting an unending line of kings that will usurp MacBeth.

Little in the film offers solace or comfort. MacBeth (Jon Finch)  is not merely a dishonest man who cheats his way into the monarchy; the film suggests most of the figures are corrupt swine, backstabbers, and scheming opportunists. The coronation scene wordlessly plays out like some Pagan ritual, the white-clothed MacBeth lifted on a wooden shield in a circle of hooded followers (with his beard, Finch looks a bit like Manson). Malcolm (Stephan Chase), the rightful heir to Duncan, is less of an avenger looking to take back what's his and is more of a weakling who hides from turmoil. Even a minor character, Ross, who in the play only had a few lines to convey information to the other characters, becomes an opportunistic villain, who is privy to MacBeth's scheme, carries out his orders, and betrays him when denied a promotion.

While the text is Shakespeare, Polanski and his co-writer Kenneth Tynan made some additions. Consider the murder of Duncan. In the play, this occurs off-stage, suggested by MacBeth's dialogue and the blood on his hands and daggers. In the film, we see MacBeth enter the king's chamber and stand over the sleeping monarch (Nicolas Selby), hesitant until Duncan awakens and sees the blade. The scene is built on tight closeups of both MacBeth and the sleeping Duncan and then becomes frantic when MacBeth strikes. There's a callback to this scene later when MacBeth, now king, has a nightmare in which Banquo holds him down for his son Fleance (Keith Chegwin) to murder him in a similar fashion.

Perhaps the most significant addition is the coda that occurs after MacBeth is killed. Donalbain (Paul Shelley), Malcolm's brother and Duncan's other son, visits the hearth of the same witches, and we remember seeing Donalbain look upset earlier when his father declared Malcolm the Prince of Cumberland, suggesting the cycle of violence and deceit will continue.

MacBeth has always been one of Shakespeare's more violent plays (perhaps topped only by Titus Andronicus), and Polanski piles on the bloodshed, pushing the film into the realm of a graphic horror film. There's no glamor or excitement in the swordplay or murders, just people being hurt and mutilated, including children. The murder of MacDuff's family in particular is a sad, gruesome affair, the mocking tone of the killers contrasting against the fright of Lady MacDuff as she watches her son die and finds the bodies of her other children (reportedly Polanski staged this sequence after his memories of the Nazis storming his home in Poland when he was a child).

This all-oppressive atmosphere of despair, bloodshed, and nihilism makes for fascinating, if depressing, filmmaking, but it tends to bury the power of Shakespeare's words. While most of the acting by Finch, Francesa Annis as Lady MacBeth, and the others is competent enough, Polanski miscalculates by having a number of the soliloquies portrayed in part or entirely as voiceovers, which deflates their power. Instead of showing how the tragic flaw of a man led to his demise, the film concentrates on the gore. From a technical standpoint, the film is a standout, but from an emotional standpoint, there's little to be moved by.

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