One of the things I like most about the Polanski film is his use of voiceovers during important soliloquies – turning many of them into interior monologues rather than having the characters say them out loud. It’s strange that this hasn’t been done more often in filmed versions of the plays. The technique would suit some of Shakespeare’s soliloquies very well, especially when the idea is to aim for realism as opposed to the deliberate, studied theatricality of (for instance) Olivier’s Richard III. (At Stratford-upon-Avon a couple of years ago I spoke with a theatre actor who had been doing Shakespeare for decades, and we somehow came around to this topic. It was his contention that the Bard would have used the technique with relish if it had been available in his time.)
What’s especially interesting about Polanski’s use of voiceovers is the way he shifts between speech and contemplation within the same soliloquy. Ever so often, just a single line in the middle of a monologue is spoken aloud. This usually happens when Macbeth, caught in a confused, threatening world of prophecies, phantasmagoria and deceit, tries to convince himself of the palpability of things. One example occurs during a famous early soliloquy. Macbeth has just been informed that he is now the Thane of Cawdor, which means that one of the witches’ prophecies has come to pass. His next lines are:
This supernatural solicitingPolanski treats almost the entire soliloquy as a private contemplation, which is appropriate; these are deeply reflective words. Macbeth’s lips move only once: when, clasping the seal that has been presented to him, he says the line “I am Thane of Cawdor” – almost as if to convince himself that all this is really happening, that his greatest hopes (and fears) are coming to pass. This is repeated in a later scene when a magical dagger seems to appear before his eyes – he says “Come, let me clutch thee” out loud but the rest of his lines are thought, not said.
Cannot be ill, cannot be good: if ill,
Why hath it given me earnest of success,
Commencing in a truth? I am thane of Cawdor.
If good, why do I yield to that suggestion
Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair
And make my seated heart knock at my ribs,
Against the use of nature?......
........My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical,
Shakes so my single state of man that function
Is smother'd in surmise, and nothing is
But what is not.
Apart from achieving a certain type of cinematic realism (and remember, there are many varieties), Polanski’s approach also makes for a Macbeth that is smaller than life, less grand than what we expect from a standard production of a Shakespeare play. An element of hopelessness, of surrender to life’s mishaps, runs through this director’s work and this film is no exception. Neither Macbeth nor his wife (or any of the other characters for that matter) are prime movers – nearly everyone is passive, allowing things to happen to them and reacting lackadaisically.
The film's Macbeth (superbly played by Jon Finch) comes across as a confused little man who does things almost randomly, without understanding the implications – not one of literature’s great tragic figures whose every deed (good and bad) stems from his essential nature. Francesca Annis’s Lady Macbeth is fragile in appearance, which makes her initial exhorting of her husband to evil more effective – but even she doesn’t hold the stage for any length of time. The hand-washing scene isn’t shot to evoke a sense of High Drama (as it superbly was in the Kurosawa version), it’s understated and somewhat pathetic – this Lady Macbeth feels like a victim of circumstance, a little woman who allowed momentary greed to enmesh her in things that were way over her head. One almost feels that her comeuppance is disproportionate to her crime.
The nihilism on view here is more Polanski than Shakespeare, but there are many things to enjoy even for purists. The splendid cinematography for one, with the deliberately gloomy outdoor sequences creating an oppressive effect that’s so suited to this story. And yet, despite the understatement, Polanski does turn into a stylist when he has to, and pulls it off brilliantly (note the striking fantasy scene with mirrors, when Macbeth has a vision of Banquo’s son becoming king).
Then there’s the way he sets images to Shakespeare’s words to fit his own worldview. When Macbeth says (or, in this case, thinks) the lines “Stars, hide your fires/Let not light see my black and deep desires”, he is shown looking at the dead body of the former thane of Cawdor, a traitor now hanging outside the castle walls. The image becomes a form of prefiguring: Macbeth’s deep and black desires will bring him to a similar end. But it also points to the cyclical nature of evil, allowing us to reflect that the previous thane must have had overvaulting ambitions of his own. The very last scene of the film, which I won’t reveal here, takes this theme further and is markedly different in tone from the play’s ending.
There are little vignettes that suggest a close reading of the specifics of Shakespeare’s text (quite remarkable considering that English wasn’t Polanski’s first language). When the ghost of Banquo first appears and Macbeth cries out to his men in guilty terror, “Which of you has done this? Thou canst not say I did it”, the ghost nods his bloody head with a look of sorrowful reproach, as if to say “Yes, you did this.” (It adds such resonance to Macbeth’s next line: “Never shake thy gory locks at me!”) Also watch the faraway expression on Finch’s face when Macbeth hears the witches’ prophecies for the first time – he’s so mesmerised that he looks around distractedly when Banquo addresses him from behind, almost as if he were expecting another prophecy to come at him from the sky.
There’s an interesting article here about the back-story of Polanski’s Macbeth: including the slaughter of his heavily pregnant wife Sharon Tate by the Charles Manson gang in 1969 (as Roger Ebert points out, the viewer’s knowledge of this incident brings such frisson to Macbeth’s climactic revelation: “Macduff was from his mother’s womb untimely ripped”), the director’s subsequent bouts with depression and his whimsical behaviour during the shooting of this film. Some of this may help explain why Polanski’s Macbeth – his entire filmography, for that matter – is as bleak as it is.
Other Polanski films I love: Knife in the Water, Repulsion, The Fearless Vampire Killers, Chinatown and the underrated The Tenant.
Old post about Shakespeare on film here.