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Polanski's Macbeth

at the Cinema Kenmore Square

By Michael Levenson

MORE THAN Hamlet and more than Lear, Macbeth and the movies are made for each other. Of the great Shakespearean tragedies it is the darkest, the bloodiest, the most physical and most unearthly. Macbeth has everything--slaughter, madness, treachery, revenge, ghosts and witches, and at one time or another, Griffith, Welles and Kurosawa have each taken a turn at its adaption. It is an invitation to extravagance.

So one would expect that a Macbeth produced by Playboy Enterprises, adapted by Kenneth Tynan, and directed by Roman Polanski would scale heights of the bizarre. And that, in fact, is what Playboy would like us to believe it does. Throughout the press campaign the unconventionality of the film has been trumpeted, the radicalism of its interpretation celebrated. It is billed as "the most original treatment of the drama since the reign of James I."

Granted: there is some innovation in the film and some shock value. But the innovation is rather conventional (addition and deletion of scenes, effects of light and color, and so on), and the shock is neither scandalous nor exploitative. Certainly in the context of the past year, the violence in this Macbeth is hardly noteworthy. It is not that the film is without its visual extremism. One simply would have expected more from Polanski, Tynan, and Hefner, and one is thankful for less.

For what is most surprising and welcome in the film has nothing to do with originality. Its achievement lies instead in the handling of traditional problems of dramatic presentation. Scenes are well staged, lines well spoken, and the attention to medieval detail is apt. Tynan's screenplay is reasonably faithful, and the Shakespeare, though somewhat clouded, is never obscured. Polanski is no longer so eager to play enfant terrible, and it is not his radicalism that is impressive but his competence, that dullest of virtues.

SOMEHOW THOUGH, it is as if Tynan and Polanski are ashamed of their conventionalism, and almost periodically there is an effort to remind us that what we are watching is, as promised, something strange and new. So the Thane of Cawdor's hanging is presented in full view, and Lady Macbeth sleepwalks in the nude. And where Shakespeare chose to let Macbeth die discreetly off stage, Polanski decapitates him in the middle of the wide screen and follows the head, rolling down steps.

For the most part the drift into flamboyance is forgivable. In one scene in particular--Macbeth's second meeting with the witches--the visual overstatement undoubtedly enhances the text. Polanski fills a dank, green-smoked cavern with a bevy of the oldest, ugliest, cacklingest witches imaginable, and the grotesquerie, the outlandishness, is just in line with Shakespearean exuberance.

But in at least two instances the impulse to innovation results in crucial missteps. The first is in the casting. Flouting the traditional portrayal of Macbeth and his Lady as middle-aged figures, Polanski and Tynan chose Jon Finch, 29, and Francesca Annis, 26--both attractive, young and vital--for the leading roles. Their youth, if not unprecedented, is at least unfortunate. Tynan's argument has been that youth underscores the connection between murder and sexuality. But as Mary McCarthy pointed out in an essay several years ago, Macbeth's distinctive personal quality is analogous to the modern, middle-class, literal-minded, church-going bourgeois; scarcely vibrant, scarcely youthful. The sexual element is assuredly present in Shakespeare but it lies in a middle-aged fear of impotence, not in Finch's youthful assertion of virility. The Tynan-Polanski Macbeth has all the ambition and cruelty of the Shakespeare an creation, but there is none of the self-doubt. A whole vital dimension, the fear of personal failure, is lost to the character. Finch's Macbeth is finally adolescent--petulant, introverted, guilt-ridden. Similarly, Francesca Annis's Lady Macbeth is pale and lovely sentimental; not cold-blooded, hardly monstrous. In an early central scene, her persuasion of Macbeth to the regicide--the sexual taunts of the Shakespeare are replaced with tears. The two are here more Romeo and Juliet than Macbeth and his Lady, and FrancescaAnnis more a product of the Hefnerian, than the Shakespearean, imagination.

THE SECOND miscalculation is subtler but perhaps more revealing. Throughout the film Polanski has recourse to a separation of sound and image as stylistic device. Again and again, Macbeth is present on screen, silent and pensive, while the appropriate speech is read over the sound track. The result is the creation of a melancholy and self-conscious character, and with this one peculiar mannerism, Polanski manages to turn his Macbeth from unthinking warrior into a brooding, almost Hamlet-like figure.

Polanski and Tynan are uncomfortable with Shakespeare and that is understandable; the greatness of the play is a burden. Problems arise only when they assume that it is Shakespeare that must be changed and not their own dramatic interpretation. When they do that, they emerge as witnesses to an old truth--that those who try to improve Shakespeare end only by proving him right.

It is in-between such attempts at stylistic experiments that the film succeeds most. Macbeth is a horror story, sordidly realistic, brutal and bloody, and here the Polanski of the cinema of cruelty is completely at home. The murder of Banquo and the appearance of his bloodied ghost at the supper table, the discovery of the slaughtered Duncan, the madness of of Lady Macbeth, and Macbeth's final battle with Macduff--in all these scenes Polanski approaches a Shakespearean enjoyment in the sheer physical stuff of tragedy.

THERE IS A second side of Polanski's conception, though: Macbeth as fairy tale, one man's dream of kingdom fulfilled and the most genuine achievement of the film may be Polanski's respect for the fantastic. As gruesomely explicit as are the scenes of murder and madness, a feeling for the benign possibilities of the supernatural lies always in the background. This is certainly most due to the color photography which consistently catches the pastoral qualities of the countryside (a far cry from the studied bleakness of the landscape in Peter Brook's recent King Lear). The clean, brilliant pastels of the opening sunrise out of which the three witches emerge or the shot of Macbeth's castle seen from a distance set against an evening sky both work as a kind of unstated alternative to the grimy human tragedy acting itself out below.

The Tynan-Polanski Macbeth is hardly definitive, and it may, in fact, point more to the hazards of adaptation than to the rewards. If never satisfying as a whole there are individual shots in the film, even entire sequences, where Shakespeare, Polanski and Tynan are of one mind, and then it all comes right for a moment.

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