May 7, 1972: Polanski, Macbeth

Local cinemas. 

A film full of spectacle and blood. The spectacle was judicious and effective; the blood, excessive and thematic. This is a film experience that, to me at least, produces both a strong impact and a mind jumbled with thoughts.

Curiously, the key to Polanski’s view of the play is the minor character Ross. In the play Ross is an abject, conscience-less time-server, up to a point;  but then we see him warning Lady Macduff, and then he is in England telling Macduff of the slaughter of his wife and children. He fills this same function in the film — but the film shows him to be the same time-server throughout. At Macduff’s castle, after he has judiciously warned Lady Macduff, and he is on the point of leaving, we see he is in collusion with the Porter. The Porter gets the eye from Ross, leaves the gates open, and Macbeth’s henchmen enter. This appears to make vicious hypocrisy out of time-serving. The subsequent role of Ross is the same as in the play.

I thought, as I watched, that this rendered Ross completely inconsistent. But later I saw that Polanski had deliberately abandoned the emergence of conscience in Ross in order to give us a portrait of a man of minor vision (and sunny, even disposition) whose ambitions, on a small scale, parallel Macbeth’s: he will be on the winning side, whatever it is. In the film, a scene on the battlements shows Ross and three or four others with Macbeth. Macbeth awards a pendant — evidently the symbol of a thane — to someone other than Ross. This is not lost upon him, and we next see him delivering the news to Macduff. He is unchanged somehow by it all. His face was a perfect instance of Duncan’s ironic comment about the first Thane of Cawdor: “There is no art to tell the mind’s construction in the face. He was a gentleman on whom I built an absolute trust.”

The point is that absolute trust is never justified. At the end of the film Polansky adds a sequence in which Donalbain, the son of Duncan, about whom (like Fleance) Shakespeare tells us nothing whatsoever, rides alone to the domain of the weird sisters. Evidently the implication is that he will profit as Macbeth did from their predictions, and there will be another cycle of senseless slaughter. There is nothing of this in Shakespeare, of course, but Polanski’s view seems to be that Macbeth is not really distinguished either by his own character as a man or by what happens to him. All men, by and large, are ambitious of advancement and prone to violence in attaining it. Polanski’s Macbeth is l’homme moyen cruel.

Once one recognizes the view, its original presence is seen to have pervaded the entire film. The result is a film of genuine coherence — and remarkable visual consistency — but also a film that, out of regard for Polanski’s thesis, must implicitly reject the premise on which both the play and its chief character are founded. This Macbeth, one feels, is really incapable of seeing daggers of the mind, although he is a master of any edge of metal. As Coleridge pointed out long ago, the first scene — with the witches alone — makes its appeal directly to the imagination and to the emotions connected with it, so that when Macbeth ultimately meets them and responds in “rapt” attention to their words, a permanent connection has been established. Polanski’s opening sequence gives us three very real old crones, whose make-up as grotesques will withstand any close-up shot. They drag an old wooden cart along a deserted beach, dig a hole, and bury in it a severed human hand and arm clutching a dagger and framed by a rope noose. The spot is marked by a bladder full of — baboon’s blood, or whatever. The combination of realism and symbolism does not mesh. The symbolism is too blatant, and it seems unconvincing that these three quite real women, however ugly, could be the agents of a revelation. I suspect the film medium itself has something to do with the problem. Polanski obviously tried to avoid the clichés of witch costuming  and swirling fog and soft, out-of-focus trick stuff. This was a convincing beach, utterly desolate and perfectly appropriate, but not a location that speaks of destiny.

Polansky’s chief innovation is probably in the casting of two relatively young actors as Macbeth and his wife. Their youthfulness — age, say, thirty at most — brings a freshness to two roles notoriously difficult and in some ways so unrewarding in proportion to the effort expended. But, for all this, I missed the feeling of genuinely great ambition in either of them. And especially Lady Macbeth, who here is very appealing, with clear eyes and radiant long straw­berry blond hair, but who has a paltriness of aim instead of a grand, however vicious, conception of herself as a partner of Macbeth’s greatness. She never at all abjures the femininity of her nature; appropriately, Polanski puts off her invocation to spirits to “unsex” her until the next scene (sometime around the point of Duncan’s arrival), and it is as anti-climactic there as it is inappropriate anywhere — for this Lady Macbeth.

Still, the film has undeniable merits.The Scottish exterior locations take advantage of much bleak or otherwise appropriate landscape and the abundant rainfall of this remote northerly district (though the ominous thunder and deluge immediately after Duncan arrives at Macduff’s Castle is clumsy battle-axe symbolism).  The fight between Macbeth and Macduff at the end has to be long, and it was, and it has to be effective, expert, and convincing — and it was.

Other innovations:

– Lady Macbeth’s sleep-walking scene was done in the nude, though her lovely long hair fell forward over her shoulders and prevented us from being distracted by her “woman’s breasts.” The scene was pitiful, and right. She dies by leaping from the battlements (we do not see the leap, fortunately).

– in the murder scene, Macbeth enters the chamber of Duncan, we follow him in; he hesitates just as his dagger touches the Kings’ breast; the King awakes, pronounces “Macbeth!” in amazement, and this forces Macbeth to strike home.

– in the banquet scene, Banquo’s ghost is whitish at first, then progressively bloodier, showing every gash the assassin says is there. He appears only once.

– in the battle scene, Macduff actually beheads Macbeth, at the top of a long stair;  his head falls over the edge of it and down to the courtyard, is then mounted on a very long pole, and we get a long shot of it from outside the castle, waved above the battlements.

– most noticeable was the ferocity of battle and the sheer volume of blood. The play speaks of brutality, and the film is faithful to every suggestion. But, again, where the text emphasizes a causality in Macbeth’s illicit ambition and cruel tyranny, Polanski emphasizes an apparently permanent human condition. Shakespeare’s language meliorates bloodshed; but the language of film is visual, nonverbal, the blood is uncontaminated by any intermediary agency, and its sheer impact on the screen sickens the stomach and oppresses the mind. One inevitably thinks of the murder of Sharon Tate, Polanski’s wife. That was what the newspapers would call a tragedy. Curiously, Polanski’s Macbeth comes close, in theme, to that same idea. Tragedy, for us, has lost its former reference in individual catastrophe and has begun to mean only collective atrocity, which emerges here, or there, or anywhere.



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An American Playgoer in London by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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