Friday, April 26, 2013

The Unobstructed View

For me, the most important thematic aspect of Macbeth, as I've said before, is in how it shows certainty about the future is inherently destructive. By committing his faith to the good things the witches foretell, he must accept the bad things, too. But more importantly, his world seems to shrink as a result. Even before he sees the trees move across the field or learns that Macduff was untimely ripped from his mother's womb, Macbeth is saying how life is "a tale told by an idiot . . . full of sound and fury signifying nothing." Roman Polanski's 1971 adaptation, despite some small, controversial alterations and embellishments, preserves this aspect of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth's experience. I wasn't bothered by the slight enlargement of the character of Ross, to show him to be a soulless turncoat. The addition is pretty minor and doesn't get in the way of anything else. The violence I might have had a problem with, if only because so often violence in movies looks fake and is more effective when off screen, but the special effects Polanski brings to bear and his compositions have enough brutal realism to make the scenes honest contemplations of horrible violence. The movie generally has that mix of the pervasive beautiful and grotesque I love about historically accurate medieval costumes and production design.

Made a couple years after the murder of Polanski's pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, along with several of his friends, the movie reflects the kind of intimacy with destructive violence Polanski had experienced. All of his movies, even before the murders, have a pessimism about them, a conception of reality where the weak or the vulnerable invariably fall prey to the aggressive and amoral. But it's hard not to think of his then recent experience in the scene where Macduff's family is murdered. The scene where Macduff learns of his family's murder, where Macduff continually asks if all of his children have been killed, has a raw sorrow about it I don't remember seeing in any other production.

When he's told by Malcolm, "Be this be the whetstone of your sword, let grief convert to anger," one senses Macduff feels the futility of revenge.

Despite this, the movie ends with some unexpectedly amazing sword fights. I'm not quite sure it's appropriate for Macbeth to seem like such a badass. It's certainly a far cry from Toshiro Mifune screaming like tortured animal as he's riddled with arrows in Kurosawa's version. Though there is something in his demeanour and effectiveness of the eerie calm of the zealot.

The swordplay at the end of the movie is really incredible. Not for the fencing proficiency, but for the roughness of it. It's like the hallway fight scene in Oldboy; it has the beauty of rough hewn artistry.

When Macbeth visits the witches the second time, Polanski uses some of the techniques he used in Repulsion to give a sense of Macbeth's loosening grip on reality. His decision to turn the three witches in the scene into a whole roomful of naked and disfigured old women loses the characters' resemblance to the Furies somewhat, but their apparent physical ruin combined with their confidence in their foresight reflects again the destructiveness of certainty.

Francesca Annis as Lady Macbeth doesn't compare with Judi Dench in the role, but she's not bad. She definitely has the best costumes of any Lady Macbeth I've seen. John Finch as Macbeth is okay. The star of the movie is really the strikingly sad, beautiful, and ugly world Polanski paints.

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