Having finally caught up with Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth, I decided to take a look at the cinematic version it owes itself most readily to.
The appeal of Roman Polanski’s earliest films is much the same appeal of Emily Dickinson’s lust-stabbed poetry: sheer, giddy brokenness. Like Dickinson’s disturbed capriciousness and orgasmic hyphens that sever the natural rhythm and flow of normal meter and sane minds, Roman Polanski’s early films come to us spastically, errantly strewn about as bits and morsels and shattered carcasses stricken across the land. The corrective tissues appear almost nonexistent, the cartilage lost to time and unstitched. His early films are cinema without forebears, with ’70s grotto smashed into the theatrical slabs of pre-modern cinema Polanski adored quietly but no less vociferously than the haute couture modernism en vogue during his era. Watching Cul-de-Sac or Knife in the Water is like watching an uneasy mind of clamorously clashing style and unfixed pre, post, and midsexual urges vacillating all about over the canvas without inhibition.
Of course, Polanski in 1971 was not Polanski in 1968; his Macbeth, a natural marriage to Polansi’s style if ever there was one, was the first of his post-trauma films, and it bears the unmistakable albatross of Polanski’s home life around its neck. The funereal pall of forlorn mist and saturnine landscape encases the film in murk and mire as the murder and mayhem of the tale no doubt hits home for a man who recently lost his wife and unborn child to the Manson family killings. The downcast gloom of Polanski’s adaptation is never self-important though; perhaps because the film treads on ruined rather than hallowed ground and doesn’t wallow in grotesque poetry, or perhaps because Polanski is able to retain more than a sliver of his trademark gallows humor, his Macbeth never feels like an exercise in self-pity.
The tale won’t be recounted here, especially because Polanski’s alterations are visual, tonal, and atmospheric rather than narrative. An opening battle is colored in the horror of the unknown rather than galvanized by operatic imagery. Violence is petty and servile, and every character’s flaws feel duplicitous, as though a byproduct of an offloading, cryptic social ennui – much like the world of the early 1970s –producing reprobates and ne’er-do-wells. Far more than Orson Welles’ adaptation of the play – his first Shakespeare film, and his weakest – Roman Polanski’s Macbeth is obsequious not to Shakespeare itself but to the zeitgeist of its production era.
It’s earth-shakingly grim then, sublimated into a swampy filth of Scottish moors that tacitly begs the futility of the narrative’s event and contestation. This is Polanski’s greatest admission of guilt to severing the text of its spirit for the better; while Shakespeare truculently throws verbal and physical blows to contest the lateral land of Scotland, Polanski nihilistically contemplates the very point of combat for such a tarnished land. Barbaric and medieval unlike any visual Shakespeare elsewhere, the putrid pointlessness of the characters’ quests are omnipresent in every shot. So much marching, and yet Polanski is always widening the landscape to invoke the paltry notion that a good day’s march can get you anywhere in such an infernal locale. Here, the power plays are truly internal, existing for their own sake and nothing more – this deleterious landscape is no prize.
Over time, Polanski’s sanguine-spewing credentials unfold as the film shifts into hurtling, spasmodic horror, the camera woozily arresting and assaulting the characters as their minds slip into bedlam and hallucination. Although the film – like Polanski’s prior literary adaptation, Rosemary’s Baby, at that, – is a good twenty minutes too girthy for its own good, its brio is inarguable. Any Shakespeare where the castles would hide a Bela Lugosi or a Boris Karloff as readily as a Queen or a King is a Shakespeare with something to add to a tale as old, and often waterlogged, as time itself.