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Macbeth (Roman Polanski) 1971

 

    It can be said fairly definitively that Roman Polanskiís Macbeth is the bloodiest straight Shakespeare adaptation to have made it to the screen, but itís also one of the least stagy. The elaborate production values in the film are as ambitious as the lead character, and thereís no denying that the film is quite striking despite the grimy ugliness that dominates it. Certainly, the original play is rather bloodthirsty, so it can be accepted that when someone gets hit with a mace in Polanskiís film, they bleed. To make a sanitized version of Macbeth would mute much of the depravity found in the source material. Revenge and murder are messy businesses, and Polanski doesnít try to hide that from us. Weíre made to watch a procession of brutal slaughters both on and off the battlefield, and nearly every one of them is shocking. Whatís even more surprising, though, is that Polanski creates a version of Scotland here thatís balanced precipitously between barbarism and cultivation. Coming as it did after the slaying of Polanskiís wife Sharon Tate, itís impossible not to draw parallels between the movieís murderous vision of the past and modern times, and those similarities arenít pretty. Macbeth seems more a product of his society in this context than a man who steps wildly outside its bounds. Since his Macbeth takes place is such a savage world, Polanski creates a protagonist who seems less hubristic than in other interpretations.

   

    The world of Macbeth is far from refined, but the source material doesnít exactly pull punches either. Polanskiís direction is surprisingly sophisticated, though, and it lends some artistry to the general callousness. The movie is shot in Scope, and Polanski takes full advantage of the extra screen space. His compositions rarely remain static, but when they do, theyíre still filled with motion since the actors are always moving about the frame. This gives the movie a chaotic, ill at ease feeling that is unfortunately dissipated by the choice to internalize the charactersí monologues. The scenes that show the weird sisters, might not have quite the impact of those in Kurosawaís Throne of Blood (still the best version of the play, by a hair), but they come awfully close. Jon Finchís Macbeth is toweringly regal at times, and devastatingly human at others, and utterly convincing as either. By the end, heís thoroughly convinced of his invincibility, and his imperial sang-froid becomes downright unsettling since it bears little resemblance to human emotion. He transcends fear itself, as his confidence grows, and becomes a nigh-unstoppable, sword fighting, madman (prompting some of the best duels ever to make it on screen). Francesca Annisí Lady Macbeth is a bit less satisfying. She seems meeker than one might imagine her, and her sway over her husband seems awfully chaste. Itís not a bad performance so much as a non-traditional one, but Annis isnít able to make us forget whatís come before. She goes from sane to insane a bit too quickly to be psychologically satisfying, but she still creates uneasiness through her sudden descent into madness. Even as the weakest link in the production, she holds up well. Though Shakespeare himself might have contended that ďthe playís the thing,Ē Polanskiís Macbeth makes an argument that the setting and direction can play just as important a role in dramatizing an adaptation.

 

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06-10-02 

Jeremy Heilman