Because I have a certain respect for Shakespeare, I usually avoid productions of his plays. Too many directors falsify them by trying to modernize them. I don’t mind modern-dress performances; I do mind modern-ideas performances, which turn the plays into parables of fascism or feminism or existentialism — current fads that are totally alien to the playwright.
Such directors seem to think they’re paying Shakespeare a compliment by showing his “relevance” to our world. The truth is that they are too unimaginative to enter into his world, where the feudal and the supernatural co-exist naturally.
A happy exception is Roman Polanski’s 1971 movie version of Macbeth, for my money by far the best Shakespeare film ever made. Instead of bringing the story up to date, it plunges into the Middle Ages with relish and makes even ancient superstitions come eerily alive.
From the first shot of the Weird Sisters — a trio of truly hideous crones — you feel evil in the air. Macbeth himself, played by Jon Finch, is a handsome young warrior whose wife, played by Francesca Annis, has a delicate beauty rarely brought to the role of Lady Macbeth. These aren’t the ruthless middle-aged couple we usually see, but a pair of young people on the make. When she upbraids him for his reluctance to kill the king, she weeps, hurt that her husband isn’t giving her the kingdom he promised her. You feel her tears melting him.
But it isn’t the actors who make this film so satisfying; it’s the director. Polanski is a master of atmosphere, and he was also advised by the great theater critic Kenneth Tynan. It was an inspired collaboration; but unfortunately, it can’t be repeated. Tynan died years ago, and Macbeth is probably the only Shakespeare play suited to Polanski’s talent for the macabre.
The murders are shown with uncompromising violence. While remaining faithful to the Shakespearean text, the film has all the fright of a first-rate horror movie, the kind that makes you say to yourself, “I don’t know how much more of this I can take!” Banquo is slaughtered with a broadaxe, and when his gruesome ghost, its face blanched and bloody, appears at Macbeth’s supper, you feel you’ve seen a real ghost for the first time. No wonder Macbeth erupts in hysterical terror. It might indeed “appal the devil.”
Even this awful moment is surpassed by the slaughter of Macduff’s family. As Macbeth’s hired murderers invade the house, Macduff’s young son says, “He has killed me, mother,” and blood suddenly dribbles like a small fountain from the wound in the back of his neck. In this world, not even children are safe.
The film was Polanski’s first after the sensational 1969 murder of his pregnant wife, the actress Sharon Tate, by the Manson gang. There was inevitably speculation that his personal life had shaped his grim Macbeth. Polanski denied this; he’d already made two memorable horror films, Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby, and he didn’t need lessons from life in order to make another.
The film is shot in beautiful color, with Scottish landscapes, castles, and fine period detail. Yet even the most gorgeous scenes are ominous, pregnant with imminent violence. In the battle scene near the beginning we see a soldier brutally killed with a mace; soon afterward the treacherous Thane of Cawdor is hanged, not by a rope but by a chain, which creaks heavily as his body swings from side to side like a pendulum. Polanski has a gift for the small surprises and sensations, visual and aural, that make a scene fresh.
Except for Orson Welles, Max Reinhardt, and Franco Zefferelli, no other first-rate director has ever tackled Shakespeare on the screen. This is both a pity and a mystery. Elizabethan plays, with their rapid changes of scene, are well suited to the cinema. Great scripts are hard to come by. The Shakespeare plays have inspired wonderful operas; why not wonderful films? (I’m not forgetting Laurence Olivier’s lovely Henry V.)
Countless inferior directors, on the other hand, have been eager to film Shakespeare, and they haven’t been shy about superimposing their harebrained conceptions on the plays. Is Polanski’s Macbeth destined to remain a uniquely successful film adaptation of our greatest dramatist?