The Tragedy of Macbeth, 1971

dir. Roman Polanski

 

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Roman Polanski – what a great maker of films (perv or no). Chinatown, Rosemary’s Baby, The Pianist and the astounding remake of Oliver Twist are all stories we were told by this fella. As with most directors worth their salt, he was in his element when he tried his hand at Shakespeare. This film, much like Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet, seeks to articulate the centuries-old vision of millions and like Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet, he pretty much succeeds in that. This dark, brooding, atmospheric tale of murder and betrayal, sinister omens and supernatural deceits, of two lovers sucked in by the monster of ambition only to be chewed, half-digested and then vomited back out again is a solid celluloid counter-part to Shakespeare’s theatrical vision. This is a traditional telling of the tale.

 

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The actor Jon Finch is what I can only describe as a lost gem of British cinema. The few films I have seen him play major roles in – nearly all Shakespeare – he is consistently gripping. He is one of only a few Shakespearean actors who yes, do the ‘old-school’ style of Shakespeare rolling-off-the-tongue but no, do not come off looking like a pretentious ass. He is sincere. He is in the zone. He believes in his character and when he speaks the lines he roars them out, rippling waves across the audience with phenomenal resonance, submerging us in The Bard’s poetry whilst still retaining a dignified realism about the piece. This must be his best film, he is certainly best known for it, but I have also seen the David Gile's 1979 movies and he makes for the ideal Henry IV. In this film we watch him go from steady-handed, reliable and loyal defender of the realm to suspicious and unsettled trapper of fortune and husband of evil, then to dangerously paranoid desperate king of a worthless throne, teetering on the edge of insanity, finally going all the way to full-blown maniac tyrant, laughing wickedly at his fate defying immunity yet crying hysterically for his most secret of all his many secrets; that the Witches are full of it for they cannot be supremely right and wrong at the same time; Banquo will get kings and he really should beware Macduff.

 

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The battle scenes deserve particular praise; this is before CGI, this is when they really had to pay hundreds of extras to dress up in full battle armour and storm a real castle with all the bloodlust of a real medieval army. It’s so damn cool when he’s the last man standing, fighting off the entire army and it’s just about believable too, that somehow with that kind of deluded confidence (and by this time, Finch is long forgotten, replaced by an entirely convincing Macbeth) he really could take on that many people and get so far, even if just by luck. “Hahahahaaa! Thou wast born of woman!!” Great stuff.

 

 

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