Criterion Review: The Tragedy of Macbeth

In one of the special supplements on the Criterion Collection's release of Roman Polanski's The Tragedy of Macbeth, the director describes the joy of adapting The Bard. "It's a little bit like jazz," he says, "where you have a theme and you can improvise upon this theme." This perfectly encapsulates his exceptional interpretation of The Scottish Play which prunes the poetic dialogue to affect a more naturalistic tone and internalises many soliloquies to convey a surprising degree of psychological realism. In doing so, Polanski makes Macbeth a startling exploration of twisted youthful ambition in a world beset by grim brutality.

As vulgar as it may be to do so, it's difficult not to make connections between this fatalistic vision and Polanski's own life at the time. Macbeth was the first feature that he made after the horrific murder or his wife, Sharon Tate, and unborn son at the hands of the Manson Family. After such an ordeal, he dropped the comedy project that he had previously been working on to make something with more substance and does so with considerable skill. However, it is impossible to watch some of the violence - particularly the gut-wrenching murder of Macduff's family - without experiencing the action on an extra-textual level. However, to rely too heavily on this context is to undermine the brilliant work being done.

The screenplay was written by Polanski with English theatre critic Kenneth Tynan and they do a fantastic job of condensing the language of Shakespeare's already short play even further. It's not just a case of cropping out great swathes, however, their cutting is far more subtle than that. They remove small sections of dialogue or split it amongst multiple characters to make it more conversational and in many ways vault the barrier that some audiences would claim to find in Shakespeare's language. This is helped no end by a uniformly tremendous cast led by the as-then-unknown Jon Finch (described by John Gielgud as the greatest ever speaker of prose) as Macbeth and Francesca Annis as his scheming wife.

Their somewhat atypical youthfulness - a specific design by Polanski - gives their bloody ambition a fascinating air of misguidedness that spirals into murder upon murder. It also underlines the sexuality of the power that Lady Macbeth holds over her husband; her words about his duty as a man given the full body of both their carnal and public meanings by the presence of young lust. There is also the question of the infamous nude sleepwalking scene which some assumed was demanded by the film's production company - Playboy - but which was apparently always in the script and serves to heighten the extremity of her horror. For Finch's part he imbues Macbeth with a handsome magnetism while both he and Annis do well to convey their increasing mental torment while much of their dialogue is played over the action in voiceover. It's a conceit that initially feels clumsy but that quickly fades in the face of such internal drama.

Another innovation of Polanski's was the elevation of the minor supporting player, Ross (John Stride), to machiavellian courtier. Without giving him any lines that were not in the original play, but but placing him in scenes throughout - and giving him individual reaction shots - he comes to embody wider covetousness. Where Macbeth's ill-fitting crown represents a rotting country under his corrupt leadership (the sickly atmosphere aided by The Third Ear Band's spare and atonal score), Ross' fawning ambition highlights the insidious climbers around every corner. And all of this is achieved through the power of Gil Taylor's classic, but otherwise unobtrusive camera and Shakespeare's own words. Where Justin Kurzel's recent Macbeth bellowed its cinematic credentials at its audience, Polanski's just inherently oozes cinema. It is a masterful adaptation of a master by a master.

Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson


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