Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Macbeth



aka The Tragedy of Macbeth : UK (UK/US) 1971 : Roman POLANSKI : 140 mins

Scotland, the 15th century. Young nobleman Macbeth (Jon Finch) is a loyal warrior in the service of King Duncan (Nicholas Selby). Returning from battle one rainy evening, he encounters a trio of old women who prophesy that he will take over the throne. At home, his ambition is further stoked by the goadings of his wife (Francesca Annis) and, when Duncan pays a visit to their castle, Macbeth murders him and pins the blame on two drunken royal guards. Fearful of coming under suspicion, Duncan’s sons Malcolm (Stephan Chase) and Donalbain (Paul Shelley) flee the country. Macbeth is duly crowned King of Scotland – but things do not run smoothly for the increasingly power-mad monarch…

While one of the more ambitious film versions of Shakespeare, the now rarely-screened Macbeth (a ‘Playboy Production’ funded by Hugh Hefner, of all people) counts among Polanski’s lesser works: certainly not in the same league as Cul-de-Sac (1966), Rosemary’s Baby (1968) or Chinatown (1974). Then again, it’s unfair to be too critical: the director suffered shattering personal tragedy just before filming when his pregnant wife Sharon Tate was murdered by Charles Manson’s “family” during the notorious ‘Tate-LoBianca’ killings of 1969.

Knowing this biographical information makes certain scenes in Macbeth – especially the sequence in which the wife, children and servants of Macduff (Terence Bayler) are slaughtered – very difficult to watch. And it contributes to the ‘dark’ aura that has always been associated ‘the Scottish play.’ In Polanski’s version, this ominous atmosphere is most powerfully felt during the outdoors scenes that make up much of the action, with evocative use made of windswept settings. Oddly, none of these are actually in Scotland itself (everyone speaks with conspicuously English accents): Northumberland and Wales provide the backdrop, with Porthmadog beach a suitably desolate “blasted” site for the opening scene in which  ┬áthe three ‘weird sisters’ perform a grisly, vaguely Masonic low-tide ritual.

Polanski and cinematographer Gil Taylor’s on-location work – augmented by the sparely-used, discordantly eerie score by folkie-improv troupe Third Ear Band – rivals the likes of The Wicker Man (1973) and Witchfinder General (1969) as a depiction of an underpopulated, ruggedly beautiful rural Britain where evil forces have the upper hand. Striking set-pieces include Macbeth’s coronation at Scone in the middle of a very Wicker Man-ish stone circle; a very trippy hallucination scene in the witches’ cave; and the final siege of Macbeth’s castle as “Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane” while a tiny copper sun glows on the distant horizon.

But when the action moves indoors – to sets at Shepperton Studios – much of the air goes out of the production, both literally and metaphorically. The interiors scenes are of the type over-familiar from theatrical and small-screen versions of Shakespeare, and the emphasis is much more on the playwright’s dialogue – some of which may seem opaquely convoluted to modern audiences. This isn’t a complete rendition of the original text, however: the script (by Polanski and theatre-critic Kenneth Tynan) is a skilful condensation, saving time by converting many of the play’s numerous soliloquies into ‘silent’ monologues in which we “overhear” the characters’ inner thoughts – often so forceful they spill into audible speech.

These duties are handled with professionalism with a cast that wouldn’t look out of place at the National Theatre or the Royal Shakespeare Company, though there are no particular stand-outs (bar perhaps Andrew McCulloch’s cameo as ‘Second Murderer’) and Annis does seem a little young and fragile for the Machiavellian schemings of Lady Macbeth. Then again, the play’s slightly lopsided structure means this pivotal character does fade from the action rather too quickly after Macbeth’s coronation: tumbling into insanity, she leaves Macbeth isolated and easy prey for his own inner demons – stretches in which the pace noticeably flags.

The climactic battle with the vengeance-crazed Macduff is stirring stuff, however: nimbly choreographed by National Theatre fight-arranger William Hobbs and culminating in a satisfyingly grisly – and graphic – demise for the now-despicable Macbeth. Polanski and Tynan then close with an invention of their own, a downbeat, rain-swept, dialogue-free coda in which Donalbain creeps around to the weird sisters’ hideout… Macbeth II, anyone?

14th July, 2004
(seen 13th July : National Museum of Photography Film and Television, Bradford : one-off public show)

by Neil Young