"Out, damned spot!" (Polanski version)

(by William Shakespeare) (1606) (Dir. Justin Kurzel) (2015) (Advance screening, Adelaide 29/9/15)

[Films noted in passing: (Dir. Roman Polanski) (1971), (Dir. Orson Welles) (1948)]

The Scottish Play is the Bard’s tightest, tautest, most nightmarish work,  It contains his best poetry – in fact, almost every line is superb and has no waste.  It’s personae encapsulate all of Freud and his successors, but says it better. Macbeth lays bare for us the fatal links whereby valour and honour, under the strains of chance, imagination and “vaulting ambition”, lead to evil acts, and ultimately, overweening psychopathy – a manual showing us how one good, or bad, step downwards leads to the next, and so on, all the way to the moral depths.  The protagonist spends the drama clattering down those steps; pushed by the witches, by the missus, by the casual indifference of his peers, almost but not quite against his will.  Hence, one’s reaction to Macbeth (properly read, or staged) is repulsion mired with the hope he’ll get away with it.

Orson Welles’ version has mostly interiors which heighten the theatricality of the story.  Dark, cheap (made in 21 days at humble Republic Pictures) and stark, delivered in thick Scottish burrs, Welles styled it as “a kind of violently sketched charcoal drawing of a great play” and Welles’ biographer Barbara Leaming (1985) suggested that the Big Guy made it as an experiment in film-making on a sparse budget and to a tight deadline.  It works, though here Macbeth comes across as Harry Lime with a brogue and funny hat, and the fact it does work owes much, or most, to the man who penned it 342 years before.


“I am in blood stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er…”

In Polanski’s vivid, cinematic adaptation, authentic crones meet on a grim Caledonian beach and agree to meet the naughty Scots lad on the heath, after the hurley-burley.  Mud, blood, water, sand and smoke abound, as do gritty performances, in particular Jon Finch, Francesca Annis as the Lady, Martin Shaw as Banquo, John Stride as an enigmatic Ross and a wild, eye-rolling Terence Bayler as Macduff, who appeared to have untimely ripp’d himself from mother’s womb.

"Screw your courage to the sticking place, and we'll not fail."

“Screw your courage to the sticking place, and we’ll not fail.”

Polanski uses sound beautifully, and the medium serves with many of the brilliant soliloquies unspoken, heard as dark monologues of thought. Ambient noise is muted as the guilt-haunted villain creeps about his repellent palace, Saddam Hussein-like.

Like Bob Hawke, the hosts’ hands are all encarnadined.  The Scottish Play is awash with blood (“Blood will have blood”) but the blood-letting is satisfying, and the visuals  (which seem to have inspired Monty Python and the Holy Grail) very impressive.

"Is this a dagger which I see before me...?"

“Is this a dagger which I see before me…?”

Harold Bloom says Macbeth is “a tragedy of the imagination.”  He regards the blood and gore as secondary to and consequent upon the vast range of Macbeth’s ambition and imagination.  We agree but it is hard to get past the fact that blood and gore is so very Scottish – quintessentially so (a Shakespearean Scotch stereotype if you will**, but as George Clooney says in Up In the Air, stereotyping saves a lot of time).

macFassThe Varnished Culture is fortunate to have influential friends: thanks Melanie from the Theatre Guild!  And so we were treated to an advance screening at the Nova Cinema, of the version by Justin Kurzel, with Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard as the Bloody Royals of Alba.  Director Kurzel had limbered up for the niceties, etiquette and manners of High Middle Ages Scotland by previously making that delightfully charming film, Snowtown.

We report that there was some good playing – Fassbender was fine as Macbeth although his speech strayed to contemporary-colloquial sometimes, and Cotillard oozed vibrancy as his lady, although her Mark-of-Cain forehead-blemish distracted some of us.  Macduff (Sean Harris) was gritty in a lock-stock-and-two-smoking-barrels-sense, and David Thewlis was impressive as King Duncan, seeming a Real king in a rather wet role.  The director had an interesting take on Ms Macbeth’s infamous (and ambiguous) childlessness: the film opens with an infant’s burial on the heath, and a variable number of witches appear and re-appear with a small child – moreover, small children manifest themselves throughout, often without visible motive.mac2Which brings us to a major quibble.  Leaving aside the splendid emoting; some gorgeous visuals of Scotland’s saw-toothed mountains, blasted heaths and bronzed light (complete with what seemed to be ambient cherry blossoms – suddenly it’s Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood!), and ignoring the modern tendency to speak the play as prose rather than poetry – the problem here was simple – textual vandalism.  One wondered, one spluttered, one cringed.  For example:

(1) The witches plan to meet their mark on ‘the battlefield’.  Actually, they are to meet with Macbeth “Upon the heath.”  There is no assonant effect from “battlefield”.  So why change the line?  Did the director want to accentuate his nifty, Lord of the Rings style battle scenes?; (2) After battle, Duncan invites himself to newly-promoted Macbeth’s castle at Inverness.  Yet in this film, they seem to repair to what looks like a scout camp in the middle of nowhere. Surely the Thane of Glamis had better digs?; (3) Macbeth’s great soliloquy, wrestling with his conscience as he follows the spectral dagger towards the doomed Duncan, is completely subverted by the ham-fisted and meaningless device of having the dagger carried by the ghost of a boy who died earlier in battle (did the crew forget to order the fishing wire?); (4) Shakespeare, the wisest dramatist who ever lived, doesn’t show us Duncan’s murder but here it is, in all its sanguine glory (to be fair to Kurzel, he’s not the only filmmaker to fluff this decision); (5) After the regicide, the film has Macbeth defy Malcolm, virtually admitting the deed, and driving the true heir away in terror. This simply won’t do; (6) There are illogically discarded scenes – the witches submit to a few edits, the (excised) porter answering at the gate is not just comedy relief but an important part of the whole theme of frustrated impotence, and Lady Macbeth’s disingenuous response to news of Duncan (“Woe, alas! What, in our house?”) is deflated by the suspicious Banquo (“Too cruel any where”) but not here!; (7) Macbeth gets the news on Banquo from the murderers whilst at table in the dining hall with all the thanes, lords and attendants (!); (8) Is Macbeth’s dreadful spree an act of impotence?  His porter insinuates it; his ‘childless’ wife implies it often.  When she hurls herself from the battlements, Shakespeare has Macbeth respond with the richest nihilism in all literature:

“To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day

To the last syllable of recorded time,

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death.  Out, out, brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then is heard no more: it is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.”

But in the film, Macbeth says these words whilst tenderly gathering up his dead wife (from a bed), rendering this great speech not only superfluous but incongruous as well; (9) we won’t be dogmatic about this, but was that woad on everyone’s faces?  Braveheart?  Really?; and (10) The final battle is a damp squib indeed.  Macbeth doesn’t combat as one capable of un-seaming opponents “from the nave to the chaps” and rather meekly meets his fate (and also keeps his head – did the crew forget to bring a shovel?).

In summary, a good effort, with some worthy aspects and interesting takes – but for God’s sake, if you’re going to make Macbethread it first.

Macbeth, 1820 - John Martin

By John Martin (1820)

[Trivia note: P couldn’t resist a reference to the Scottish Play in his novel, Tranquility, so he included a character “at Ouarzazate, a Scotsman, we had heard, [who] had become insane from a mixture of kif and lack of rain, running off into the desert, screaming, “Let it come down. Let it come down.”]

{** (Scottish stereotypes: TVC has MacKenzie blood, so we feel able to libel the Scots. Duilich!}


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