Friday, August 26, 2011
Those two acknowledged masterpieces were Orson Welles’ version in 1948 and Akira Kurosawa’s 1957 version (Throne of Blood). The Welles version, which I regard very very highly, is perhaps more wells than Shakespeare. And Kurosawa’s version was in Japanese, with a Japanese setting. A definitive English language version was needed and Polanski set out to provide it.
Polanski’s film is in many ways a more traditional and more conventional version than the Welles film. Polanski has tried to stick fairly closely to what Shakespeare wrote and virtually all of the dialogue is straight from the play. Where Polanski’s movie becomes radical is in its tone. Polanski approaches Macbeth with the sensibility of a horror director and the result can be regarded as both a Shakespearian film and a horror film.
Polanski’s other innovation is to stress the medieval setting. The real Macbeth was High King of Scotland in the 11th century and Polanski treats the story as a medieval story rather than an Elizabethan one. He gives us medieval grime and squalor, but by emphasising the medieval aspects he also emphasises the remorseless medieval view of vengeance, and a medieval enthusiasm for extreme violence. It works pretty well.
Even more crucial to the success of any production of Macbeth is the actress playing Lady Macbeth. Francesca Annis handles it pretty well. She also resists the temptation to go over-the-top. Her Lady Macbeth is not overtly monstrous. Like her husband she is simply seduced by the possibilities opened up by the predictions of the three witches.
There’s a theory that the extreme nature of the violence was Polanski’s way of working through his grief over the murder of his wife Sharon Tate at the hands of the Manson Family. It’s also been suggested that the nudity was included at the behest of executive producer Hugh Hefner, this movie being the Playboy mogul’s attempt to movie into serious movie producing. Personally I suspect that a Polanski version of Macbeth was always going to have a bit more in the way of sex and violence than your average Shakespearian adaptation.
On the whole it’s one of the more satisfying attempts to put Shakespeare on the big screen and if you’re a fan of the Bard it’s really a must-see. And if you’re a horror fan you’ll find it works very successfully as an exercise in gothic horror. Highly recommended.