Macbeth (1971)

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William Shakespeare is as close to a secular saint as the Anglophone arts are ever likely to produce. More than just about any other figure, the defenders of literature seem compelled to rush to catalog every fault of any production of his plays by measuring it against some unspecified, perfect version, like inquisitors searching for heresy.

They inevitably find it, because they seldom say of what a perfect theatrical or cinematic rendering would consist. They may accept that to include every line of the play is a publisher’s requirement, not a producer’s, but which cuts are valid? Allowing those that aid dramatic experience risks recognizing that there is no echt text, only an interpretation to accept or reject. And a movie presents the further question of how much to allow for cinematic expectation?

Inevitably, Roman Polanski’s film of Macbeth raises all of these questions. In compensation for reducing the poetry to what best augments the action, Polanski provides stunning evocations of a barbaric Scotland, a suspenseful story about one man’s disintegration and a widescreen spectacle of bloody, beautiful, harrowing action. If the goal of any Shakespearean production is to make the story live for us one more time, no matter how familiar it may be, Polanski unquestionably succeeds.

His success relies in part on an undeniably heavy (and questionable) use of violence. While often hair-raising, however, the violence is not notably more explicit than was generally true in the early 1970s. More importantly, it ably fixes the action in a vivid, pulsating world.

Of course quickly moving, vibrant action still has to come to terms with the words. I often feel that watching Shakespeare performed Realistically is very much like listening to a language in which I’m not quite fluent. I can catch isolated phrases, but much of the rest is a struggle. Plenty of famous lines poke through, but of course Shakespeare is more than a coiner of catchy phrases. For anyone seeking a searing rendition of his poetry, Polanski’s film is bound to feel lacking, the more so since some of his “cinematic” touches, like the psychedelic swirl at the witches’ coven or the gratuitous nudity, might seem cheap and tawdry.

Moreover, Jon Finch and Francesca Annis as the Macbeths seem a touch young to express the tragedy fully. Both are capable, but they tend to speak their lines as if they need not make clear either their expository or poetic purpose. Finch makes Macbeth’s collapse compelling, but Annis’s role feels almost like an after-thought. (That is really Shakespeare’s fault since, after instigating Duncan’s murder, Lady Macbeth has little more to do.) Her death is more programmatic than moving, although Polanski’s decision to leave her body to rot in the castle courtyard has a certain gritty, grim irony.

So—is Macbeth a good movie? I’d say yes, despite some reservations. Is it good Shakespeare? Can anyone who asks that question ever answer in the positive?

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