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Shakespeare on Film: A Top 5 (Part 4) Hot

Matthew Henerson
Written by Matthew Henerson     August 15, 2011    
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Shakespeare on Film: A Top 5 (Part 4)

This is the third part of a weekly five-part series of writings on Shakespeare in film. Read the Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

4. Macbeth directed by Roman Polanski

Given the number of Shakespearean films made by great men of the theatre, particularly in my self-styled “Golden Age of Director’s Shakespeare,” it may seem perverse in me to pass over Orson Welles’ 1966 Chimes at Midnight with John Gielgud’s chilly Henry IV and Welles’ own magnificent Falstaff, Peter Hall’s 1967 Midsummer Night’s Dream with Judi Dench, Ian Holm, Diana Rigg, Helen Mirren, and most of the rest of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 1960s stable, and Peter Brook’s 1971 King Lear with Paul Scofield, based on the director’s own pitiless stage production which redefined the play as it toured the world, in favor of two films, Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet and Polanski’s Macbeth, made by men who would cheerfully have reversed the dictum I ascribed to Olivier. Neither man considers himself primarily, nor even secondarily, a Shakespearean, and both are much more concerned with what Shakespeare can do for film than with what film can do for Shakespeare. And yet these two films keep faith with the material upon which they are based to a far greater extent than anything filmed by Welles, Brook, Hall or even Olivier.

Now this last sentence begs a question which has occupied both theatre professionals and performance historians since England’s theatres reopened in 1660: to what extent is fidelity to the spirit, or even to the letter, of an author’s wishes to be considered a virtue? For the purposes of these recommendations, I offer the following answer. I consider the finest those films which offer me the kind of immersive experience that I have in the best theatrical productions of Shakespeare. If I can lose myself in a story the ending of which I know, if I am not troubled by the excellence of one actor’s performance compared with the mediocrity of another’s (Olivier’s Hamlet,) if I am not called upon to admire prodigious feats of technical film-making (Chimes at Midnight,) if I am not intrigued as I am watching by a tension between the vision of the director and that of the playwright (Brook’s Lear,) then I consider that I’ve seen a truly magnificent Shakespearean film. This is not to say that some of the films left off this list do not record world class Shakespeare. A few of them are even terrific movies, and more than a few of them contain revelatory performances, but my preference—and it is, finally, an individual preference—has always been for the whole experience of a play. And while my favorite theatrical productions of Shakespeare contain a few star performances—Derek Jacobi in Terry Hands's 1983 Much Ado and Ian Holm in Richard Eyre’s 1997 King Lear—most are ensemble driven: John Hirsch’s 1985 Twelfth Night, Richard Monette’s 1990 As You Like It, Robert Belinger’s 1988 Timon of Athens, and Jack O’Brien’s 1983 Macbeth. These casts included any number of excellent actors—Anthony Zerbe, Jonathan McMurtry, Seanna McKenna, Nicholas Pennell, Lucy Peacock, Tony Amendola—none of whom would be considered stars under the meaning of the act. The great Shakespeare films therefore have, to my way of thinking, an alchemy which transcends the brilliance—or lack thereof—of individual actors, directors, and cinematographers to unlock some part of the magic contained in the original play. With this definition in mind, I pass to Roman Polanski’s Macbeth, a film I find so compelling that I can lose myself in the experience of it, despite the fact that I disagree with Polanski’s approach to its protagonist.

It’s tempting to find some larger sociological reason for the 1971 release of the three grimmest films in the history of cinematic Shakespeare. Kozintsev’s bleakly political Korol Lir loads poverty and overpopulation upon the miseries besetting the mad monarch, while Peter Brook’s film of his 1962 Royal Shakespeare Company production, filmed entirely in the arctic vastness of northern Lapland, adds a cold, physical emptiness to the existential meaninglessness of Brook’s original approach, through which Scofield’s monolithic King shambles like a walking corpse. Add Polanski’s Macbeth to these two light-hearted comedies, and one finds oneself combing newspaper archives for some event more immediately apocalyptic than the relentless conflict in Vietnam and Cambodia to account for what looks like the most profound period of cultural despair in the West since 1918. But while 1971 certainly had its share of bad news, the bleakness of Roman Polanski’s outlook on life was almost certainly autobiographical. Two years earlier, Polanski’s wife Sharon Tate, eight months pregnant with the couple’s first child, was murdered by members of the Manson “family.” Polanski himself was 12 when his mother died in Auschwitz, so the man necessarily has a very personal and intimate relationship with evil.

His Macbeth film owes almost as much to Sophocles as it does to Shakespeare. Evil is as immediately present as any of Duncan’s Thanes, and while individual characters—Macduff, Banquo, Macbeth himself—muse about what might come of resisting its influence, not a one of them has the strength of purpose to do it. Macbeth’s murder of Duncan is as predestined as Oedipus’ of Laius, and the casting of an unknown young actor, the handsome and taciturn Jon Finch, reinforces the point. Macbeth is neither more imaginative nor more violent than his fellow Thanes, only somewhat chattier. And since Polanski doesn’t conceive of Macbeth as a star, he doesn’t cast a star to play him. Indeed for a Shakespeare film made with an English cast in the early 1970s and shot on location in Wales, the company is remarkably star-free. In fact the most distinctive piece of casting is the young, and at the time unknown, Francesca Annis as Lady Macbeth. In her long blonde wig with her prominent eyebrows, large eyes and full mouth, Annis looks a lot like Sharon Tate.

Parenthetically, this take on the play makes an interesting comparison to Trevor Nunn’s 1974 approach, filmed for television in 1979 with Ian McKellen as Macbeth. Although he didn’t then have the kind of international recognition his career in the movies would bring him later, McKellen was, in 1974, very much the star of the Royal Shakespeare Company, as well as an established West End performer. Nunn surrounded him with an extraordinary cast including several current and future RSC leading players: Judi Dench, John Woodvine, Bob Peck, Roger Rees, Ian McDiarmid, and Greg Hicks, to name a few. He and McKellen certainly did conceive of Macbeth as a star, and McKellen’s performance, outsized, almost broad, separates him from the world of the play as established by an otherwise understated and naturalistic cast. The production is considered one of the two most significant and successful 20th century productions of the play—the other being Glen Byam Shaw’s 1955 production at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre with Olivier as Macbeth—but I find the disconnect between McKellen and the rest of the cast jarring. I am aware of his prowess as a performer, but I’m never allowed to forget that I’m watching McKellen. He gets in the way of his performance in a way that Dench, Woodvine, Peck and Rees manage to avoid. By contrast, Polanski’s use of an entirely unknown cast prevents Jon Finch from establishing the imaginative individuality which I believe Macbeth possesses. At the same time, however, this de-emphasis on Macbeth’s eloquent and all-consuming pessimism makes it easier both to identify the arc of his progress through the story, and to identify and sympathize with the character as a human being. Polanski’s Macbeth is a short and bloody chapter in man’s endless, causeless and malignant quest for power. And the title character does to Duncan exactly what Duncan did to his predecessor. And the final image of the film shows Donalbain seeking out the witches' cavern by the sea, clearly intent upon doing to Malcolm what Malcolm and Macduff have just done to Macbeth.

My personal feelings about Macbeth’s character to one side, Polanski makes an eloquent and compelling case for Macbeth’s role as a featureless cog in what Jan Kott described as “the machine of history.” Like Brook in both his stage and film versions of King Lear, Polanski exorcises or perverts many of the play’s nobler impulses. This is particularly striking in his treatment of Ross, played by John Stride, Judi Dench’s Romeo in Zeffirelli’s 1961 Old Vic production. In the production history of the play, Ross is most often conceived of as a good-hearted, intelligent, and trusted member of Duncan’s inner circle. At the King’s behest, he brings Macbeth word that Duncan has made him Thane of Cawdor, and after Duncan’s murder, when Macduff resolves to absent himself from Macbeth’s coronation, Ross agrees to attend despite his cousin’s all but explicit accusation of the King-to-be. He is present to witness Macbeth’s response to Banquo’s ghost, and he is frequently given the fiercely partisan Lord’s lines in III, vi. He attempts to warn Lady Macduff of her imminent danger, and brings Macduff word of her murder when he—Ross—joins Malcolm in exile in England. He joins Malcolm in the siege of Dunsinane, and delivers to Old Siward both news of his son’s death in battle and praise for the manner of it. He is present at the end of the play to cheer the announcement of Malcolm’s upcoming coronation. Polanski, presumably struck by the number of deaths Ross finds himself announcing, reinvents him as a plausible sociopath, sadist and political opportunist, content to make himself useful to the king-du-jour, however that king may have come by the throne. Picking up on Shakespeare’s image of the raven as a traditional harbinger of disaster, Polanski dresses the blandly handsome Stride entirely in black. He even retains some of Ross’s more sympathetic impulses, allowing Stride to deliver, in an indifferent parody of sympathy, the news of Lady Macduff’s death to Terence Bayler’s blockish, slightly stupid Macduff, confident in the knowledge that this Thane of Fife is too dense to realize that Ross has himself cut the Lady’s throat.

Polanski also stages the execution of the traitorous Thane of Cawdor, a vicious-looking thug of a man who is forced to break his own neck by jumping off a cliff suspended by an iron collar. This he does after snarling “Long live the King!” to an indifferent Duncan. The extra-textual line immediately conjures up both its traditional prequel—“The King is dead!—reminding us that Duncan is, for all intents and purposes, a dead man walking, and the relentlessness of monarchy, and by extension of history. Here again Polanski invites us to consider the impersonal and uncaring false gods for whom king after forgotten king will murder and be murdered in an endless, bloody and pointless cycle.

Finally, there is the landscape itself, as indifferent and deadly as the people it dwarfs. Again we feel the power of Shakespeare’s imagery rendered visually. Macbeth “feel(s) his title / Hang loose about him like a giant’s robe / Upon a dwarfish thief.” (V, ii) Polanski frames shot after shot to shrink his actors. The witches open the play wandering through a vast expanse of empty beach. Both Finch and Annis are comparatively small, lean actors, and they look positively fragile against the massive crenellations of their castle. Even inanimate objects tend to loom in this film. A massive crown almost doubles the size of Finch’s head, and Macduff finally dispatches Macbeth, not with a sword, but with a huge log of wood. Against the craggy mountains, wide green flatlands, craggy beaches and deep forests of the Welsh countryside, Polanski’s actors seem tiny, and the concerns of the characters they play petty and transient. Nunn’s production merits a final mention here, by way of contrast. His is a very Christian take on the play: a white-robed Duncan blessed by a crosiered bishop; a Christian king slaughtered by a usurper damned both by the deed itself, and by whatever hellish and invisible spirits his terrified wife raises to aid him. But no god, Christian or pagan, ever saw the landscape upon which Polanski sets his Macbeth. Here is a literal representation of life as “a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury / Signifying nothing.” (V, v.) This landscape took no notice of humanity’s arrival, and will continue in indifferent ignorance long after its eventual departure.

Towards 1989

The Golden Age of Director’s Shakespeare is, of course, my own construct: a convenient label for a transitional period of 20th century British theatre during which a pair of influential national companies arose, one under the leadership of an established leading actor—the National under Olivier—and the other under the leadership of an intellectual and precocious young director—the RSC under Peter Hall. For the first ten years of their existence, these two theatres, with the active participation of established older stars like Gielgud, Paul Scofield, Michael Redgrave, Peggy Ashcroft, and of course Olivier himself, trained a generation of younger actors and directors in an ensemble style which would redefine classical theatre for the end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st century. And for almost ten years, it looked as if it might be that simple. That those ten years began in 1960, coinciding with a period of revolutionary political energy and idealism makes my construct a little more appealing, but it also tempts me to strain the metaphor. The idealism of the 60s broke against the continuation of the conflict in Vietnam and Laos, Watergate, nuclear proliferation, the Cold War, and after another ten years, Reagan and Thatcher had come to power, and the English speaking world had taken a turn to the political right. During this same time, both the National and the RSC had grown significantly, and, during the 70s, both sought increased government subsidies from less and less congenial governments. Things were less bad in the United States only because US theatres had never enjoyed any substantial government subsidization to begin with, and the Stratford Ontario Festival somehow managed to buck the trend completely, growing through the 70s into one of Canada’s major cultural treasures, and incidentally continuing to attract international talent, even as both of Britain’s national companies were fighting to stay alive.

As money became tighter, both the RSC and the National became more conservative in their programming, and long-established methods for putting butts in seats began to rear their ugly heads. Ironically but unsurprisingly, Britain’s two national theatres, both founded upon the principals of ensemble, began to clamber for stars. A new generation of leading players arose from all kinds of backgrounds, and while many had been trained in the early ensembles of the very theatres at which they were now headlining, the proliferation of media meant that fewer and fewer performers thought of themselves primarily as classical actors. Meanwhile the stage directors, whose energy and passion had produced a small explosion of Shakespearean films in the late 60s and early 70s, found themselves in demand as established theatre talent, stars in their own right, if you like.

There was also a new toy to play with. As the British film industry became increasingly commercial, and as it became more and more difficult to raise money for high-culture projects, more and more Shakespeare began to appear on television. This trend had begun back in the 1960s when both the National and the RSC realized that televising successful productions made for excellent publicity. Now, in the 70s, as more and more people watched television, advertisers began sponsoring weekly plays, and all of a sudden there was additional money to be made as well. It’s almost certainly not a coincidence that, while there were no major English language Shakespeare films made between 1972 and 1989, there were, during the same span, more than 42 televised productions in England alone, including the BBC’s highly uneven complete works project which began in 1979 with Julius Caesar and ended in 1985 with Titus Andronicus.

So if television was any indication, filmed Shakespeare still had an audience as of the mid-80s, although both film and television were increasingly star-driven media. Even the classical theatre could still bring in the odd few shekels if you had a big enough name in the driver’s seat. Witness the RSC’s successful world tour of Much Ado About Nothing and Cyrano de Bergerac starring Derek Jacobi (I, Claudius). Here was what looked like a return to the actor-manager paradigm, but that model was now obsolete. The age of the director had advanced Shakespearean production by leaps and bounds, if for no other reason than that there were now, for most major productions, several minds—director, dramaturg, actor, etc.—brought to bear on plays written by one of the mightiest minds in the history of letters. So the 19th century actor-manager had gradually been replaced by what is essentially a creation of the film industry, the star.

Once again, my last assertion has more to do with the neatness of my timeline than the actual truth. There had been excellent publicly-known performers in opera, music halls, and of course theatre well before the 20th century. But the term “star” did come out of the publicity offices of the early studios, and its meaning became more specifically defined as the film industry developed. By the late 20th century, stars were popular and recognizable performers upon whose participation in a given project money could be raised and, hopefully, earned. As movies became more expensive, and the participation of “bankable” stars more vital, A-list actors began producing, and in some cases directing, the films in which they appeared.

Now this had been happening in the theatre since the days of the actor-managers, but the rules had changed significantly, even from Gielgud and Olivier’s forays into West End management in the 30s and 40s. Actor-managers had staged plays with almost exclusive reference to their own performances. Supporting performances, thematic nuances, even narrative consistency were routinely sacrificed to provide the leading player a comfortable and exalted environment in which to speak. By the late 20th century, however, directors were primarily concerned with staging the play, and audiences had come to expect a play, rather than simply a leading performance. These expectations set the bar for commercial success considerably higher than it had been earlier in the century, when the mere presence of popular names—Noel Coward, Ivor Novello, or Lunt and Fontaine, for example—had often been enough to guarantee a certain level of financial return. Since theatre stars, necessarily more vulnerable than their film counterparts since they both made less money themselves and could be counted upon to bring less to a given project, depended for their position upon financial expectations which were in turn based upon public respect and acclaim, few of them chose to risk the potential high profile failure involved in directing themselves in major classical roles. The actor-manager was dead, and his successor, the star of stage and/or screen ceded ultimate control of a project to the director. So in 1989, after a nearly twenty-year hiatus, those who had time to think about such things looked to a partnership between a director and a movie star to introduce the next generation of filmed Shakespeare. They were strangely mistaken.

Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V, the film which would usher in the most prolific dozen years of filmed Shakespeare in the history of the genre, combined an ensemble approach with an almost embarrassing emphasis on star casting, and it turned the actor-manager paradigm on its head with a paradox worthy of Gilbert and Sullivan. When, in 1944, Olivier directed and starred in Henry V, he surrounded himself with a cast of unknown theatre actors. When, in 1989, the unknown Kenneth Branagh directed and starred in Henry V, he surrounded himself with the greatest living classical actors of the day. At the same time, no actor since Orson Welles in his 1966 Chimes at Midnight had directed himself in a major Shakespearean film. The result is a wonderful movie and an exciting, if not particularly innovative, take on Henry V. Branagh based the film upon Adrian Noble’s straightforward 1984 RSC production, in which the then 23-year old Branagh had played the title role. And while many of the excellent supporting cast members came out of that production—Brian Blessed’s Exeter, Christopher Ravenscroft’s Mountjoy and Richard Easton’s Constable—many of the most remarkable images in the film—Blessed’s Exeter, looking like a tank in full plate armor, as he delivers Henry’s challenge to the French King, the hanging of Bardolph—also come from Noble’s staging. Then there are a series of Falstaff flashbacks, a lift from Olivier’s film. It’s not that all this doesn’t work, but the film occasionally feels assembled by committee. And, although I would certainly include it in a list of the top ten Shakespeare films, I can’t find a place for Branagh’s Henry V in the top five. Perhaps this is because Branagh’s conception of the title role seems to me too close to Olivier’s, and I find Olivier the more personally magnetic actor. Perhaps it’s because the film sometimes seems held together by its collection of extraordinary performances rather than containing them in a whole greater than the sum of their parts. Perhaps it’s simply that there are five Shakespeare films I like better. My personal prejudices aside, however, Branagh’s Henry V made a decent amount of money, was nominated for three Oscars, one of which it won (Best Costume Design,) and heralded a twelve year period which would include new films of Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Othello, Richard III, As You Like It, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream as well as major English language films of Much Ado About Nothing, Titus Andronicus, and the crown jewel of the decade, Trevor Nunn’s exquisite Twelfth Night.

Check back next week for part five of this five-part series.

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