Jon Finch on the set of Roman Polanski’s Macbeth

Why put Shakespeare on film?

It’s a silly question, but Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth late last year—part Planet Earth episode, part iPod commercial—was a good occasion for it: giant Hollywood battles, slow motion blood montages, a candlelit sex scene, and very average performances doused in overdramatic and inscrutable whisper-yell. What was the point? It made me ask, Shouldn’t a production of Shakespeare bring something to the play?

So I turned again to Roman Polanski’s Macbeth—an X-rated Hugh Hefner production every bit as Hollywood as the new one—and was reassured that the screen had nothing to do with the bad taste in my mouth. Polanski’s usual sensitivity is here: thoroughly solid performances, at times exemplary; an excellent use of Shakespeare’s comic relief; an inventive ending; a paranoiac pall that echoes the original text (embellished, legend has it, to please James VI and I, who loved a good ghost story). Best of all, Polanski is a careful reader, and it shows in such a curious and detailed play. Ross, for example, an easy throwaway character, is now crucial. The few lines Shakespeare gives him convey in Polanski’s rendering a greasy sycophancy that complements Macbeth’s coup, especially in his brilliant casting as Banquo’s Third Murderer, a role so contested it’s rarely touched.

The beheading scene at the end and the psychedelic witch orgy are thrilling, but so is Polanski’s conviction that a big budget does not preclude a degree of Elizabethan seriousness and nuance.

Well, that’s not entirely fair to the Macbeth I sat through in December. Although you can’t quite rinse off the spoiled “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,” several sleights of hand keep Kurzel’s Macbeth from a total loss. One such move is a deliberate toning down of the play’s supernatural element. (The Weird Sisters are now the Random Women.) This deflates the strangeness of the play, but at least it gives the viewer something readerly to chew on.

And there’s his handling of the inheritance theme, a departure that actually works to the film’s advantage. The opening shot is a child’s funeral—Lord and Lady Macbeth’s, we gather. A defiant bit of cinematic license that expands on Lady Macbeth’s sole reference to motherhood:

         I have given suck, and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me.
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums
And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this.

So she has a child? Where is he? Or she? Illegitimate? Or did Shakespeare just toss this in to heighten the evil?

These are not new questions, but they’re seldom explained so directly. The rest of the film unfolds in the shadow of this scene—the pressures felt by Macbeth and his wife; the role of Banquo’s son, Fleance, something of a foil to the son they could have had (so real in the film that he is hallucinated into existence); Lady Macbeth’s power over her husband; and of course her ghastly lines that bring up the whole business in the first place. Progeny and patrimony are the lurking unsettlers in this production. After all, what is power without longevity? Put another way,

        To be thus is nothing,
Than to be safely thus.

And thus, between the lines of the script, the movie safely avoids complete banality. That is, at least one of its themes—which springs from a single shot—reminds us of the play and makes us think. Well, it made me think.

This is film’s power to reread Shakespeare, with instant flourishes that would be cumbersome or unfeasible on stage: Polanski’s insinuation of Ross almost entirely through camera work; Kurzel’s use of children; Kenneth Branagh’s use of space in Hamlet; Laurence Olivier’s internal monologues; Orson Welles and Michael Hayes’s treatment of time in their versions of the Henriad; Richard Loncraine’s masterful ten-minute introduction to Richard III, which follows a Führer-esque Ian McEllen through time and space all the way to the urinal for his opening speech.

And yet . . . it’s easy to get carried away. Heap on too many of these clever directorial suggestions and sooner or later you enter the territory of Romeo + Juliet, Baz Luhrmann’s wrung-dry, Nineties-Miami attempt to reinvent the script for a modern audience. This is where Shakespeare reaches an impasse. Julie Taymor’s Titus hams it up too, but with a play so seldom produced, so outrageous, so . . . theatrical, the theatrics don’t detract. (Neither does Anthony Hopkins.) And with an homage—Kurosawa’s Ran comes to mind, or even Ten Things I Hate About You—one doesn’t get the stench of cologne overapplied. Not so with Luhrmann. Here Shakespeare’s words, buttressed weakly by the performances, crumble under the weight of an interpretation. The rubble is about as nuanced as the movie’s poster: “Hope . . . Despair . . . Tragedy . . . Love . . .” We’re left not with the tingling realization that Shakespeare can still describe our world but, rather, the bloated inkling that The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet needs a change of clothes in order to speak at all.

Like all gas, this passes. And again we’re left to think: why put Shakespeare on film? One answer, aside from movies being fun to watch and Shakespeare being delightful, is the electricity that’s struck between a four-hundred-year-old set of instructions and what is by that measure a brand new medium. When a capable filmmaker turns to Shakespeare and really reads the words, a new vocabulary, a frisson, unfurls between the two mediums. The miracle of this translation is enough to convey Shakespeare’s startling modernness. (Is it Macbeth, upon the death of his wife, that we hear in “I have supp’d full of horrors,” or Polanski, whose own wife and unborn child had just been murdered by the Manson family when he started the film?) But the caveat, as illustrated by a lavish teen soap and a third-rate action movie: For all his incalculable influence on our modern comedies and tragedies, Shakespeare can’t be passed off as one of them. It’s a misguided demand for newness that suggests he should.

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