Francesca Annis and Jon Finch

In 1971, less than two years after his wife, Sharon Tate, and unborn child had been murdered by Charles Manson and his mad followers, Roman Polanski went to work on his version of Macbeth (aka The Tragedy of Macbeth). “Exorcising the demons” is how the result is often described. Whether you buy into the pop psychology or not, this commercial flop is a bloody and brutal film, and a remarkably powerful one – direct, cinematic, taut and… yes… bloody.

Polanski got in Kenneth Tynan – at the time the UK’s most famous critic, the literary manager at the National Theatre and infamous as the first man to say “fuck” on British television – to help him adapt Shakespeare’s play. Together they produced something that’s faithful to the original but also modern and sleek, which takes pains to keep the audience abreast of the salient plot points by repeating them (count the number of times Dunsinane is mentioned, and the “no man of woman born” twist on which Macbeth’s fate hinges).

But I’m getting ahead of the plot, which remains essentially the same. Macbeth, Thane (ie Lord) of Glamis, is told by three witches he meets on a “blasted heath” that he will in time become Thane of Cawdor and then King of Scotland, but that his children will not be kings. That honour will go to his companion, Banquo. Macbeth’s interest is instantly piqued but, after tossing the wild notion around for a while, he comes to the conclusion that the witches are most likely talking nonsense. And then he gets back home to his castle and discovers that the King has indeed made him Thane of Cawdor. Realising suddenly that fate has his back, Macbeth embarks on another, much more furious, debate with himself. He could just let events take their course – the kingship will surely come his way anyway. But irrationality has soon barged reason out of the way. Egged on by his wife’s taunts that he’s too “full of the milk of human kindness” (© William Shakespeare) and isn’t man enough to do the job, Macbeth kills King Duncan and seizes the crown before turning his attention to Banquo…

It does not end well, and in the Tynan/Polanski realisation, much blood is shed on screen in scenes that horrified many cinemagoers. Crew members too. When one questioned the director’s bloody take on Shakespeare’s play, Polanski apparently replied, “I know violence. You should’ve seen my house last summer.”

There are echoes of the Manson murders everywhere, not least in the skew that Tynan and Polanski have put on the Macbeth/Lady Macbeth relationship. Gone is Lady Macbeth as the driving force behind Macbeth’s murderous spree. Here Macbeth is a weak man driven into a kind of psychosis by the voices in his head (Shakespeare’s soliloquies brilliantly repurposed). Psychology trumps the supernatural.

This is a film that gets just about everything right. The casting is perfect, with Jon Finch, in his late 20s at the time, the right age to play a man in a hurry who feels he’s paid his dues and now it’s time to collect. He’s a handsome and petulant Macbeth, a silly and insecure man who goes so far as to aping the vocal timbre of the dead king after assuming the crown, because that’s how kings talk, right? Martin Shaw as the steadfast but not stupid Banquo, Nicholas Selby as the noble and gracious (and soon to be dead) King Duncan, Terence Bayler as the believeably tough Macduff, the man not “of woman born” who will prove to be Macbeth’s nemesis. Francesca Annis’s Lady Macbeth, a woman with a sexual hold over her husband, eyes aglow with ambition.

Terence Bayler as Macduff
Macbeth’s nemesis Macduff

Polanski works hard to open the play out. Shooting in castles in Northumberland, or out on wild moors and the mountainsides of Wales, he keeps the camera moving and fills his frames with armies receding in the distance, or pigs rummaging in the dirt in the foreground. In dialogue-heavy scenes filled with characters constantly in motion, he anticipates Aaron Sorkin’s “walkie-talkie” style by decades.

Polanski is abetted by the brilliant cinematographer Gilbert Taylor, whose CV ranges from Ice Cold in Alex and A Hard Day’s Night to Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy and Star Wars – yeh, not bad. Gilbert puts a spin on standard British historical drama with lighting that’s bright (like A Lion in Winter or A Man for All Seasons, say) but not over bright. There’s nuance, shadow, murk.

If the lighting is Gilbert’s, many of the camera positions are Polanski’s own. He apparently had a habit of grabbing the camera off his director of photography and repositioning it, which must have been infuriating, but there’s always been something magical about Polanski’s ability to create drama from his camera positions and lens choices.

The music is again an inspired choice, with Third Ear Band mixing the hey nonny nonny generic medieval noodling spoofed so well in Monty Python and the Holy Grail with bagpipe-inspired synth drones loaded with foreboding. They even appear, up in the minstrels gallery, in a scene of feasting before the blood-letting gets going in earnest.

No one would finance this film, until the Playboy organisation stepped in. Hugh Hefner (as Hugh M Hefner in the credits) lost a fortune on the movie but to his credit he’s not trying to turn this into a showcase for his soft porn empire. The much discussed moments of nudity are hardly “Here it is, boys” moments – Lady Macbeth’s naked sleepwalking scene makes tasteful use of Francesca Annis’s long, long hair and the roomful of naked “hags” Macbeth encounters when he goes to consult the witches again are hardly centrefold material either. Props to Hefner. If only Penthouse Magazine had taken note when they were financing Caligula later in the decade.

Er… brilliant, in short, and clearly a massive influence on Justin Kurzel’s 2015 Macbeth starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard. Perhaps Kurzel is even more brutish, but Polanski is bleaker.

Incidental point. In what’s usually known as “the Scottish play”, not a Scottish accent to be heard. Kurzel’s 2015 Macbeth was hardly awash with them either. And the upcoming Joel Coen-directed The Tragedy of Macbeth, starring Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand, looks like it’ll not be genuflecting in that direction either.

Macbeth – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

25 January 2016-01-26

Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard in Macbeth

Out This Week



Macbeth (StudioCanal, cert 15)

Director Justin Kurzel must have hired every smoke machine in the UK for this adaptation of “the Scottish play” about a warlike laird driven crazy, either by his own ambition or by supernatural forces. But the relentless visual effects, dark, swirling lighting and fabulous performances by Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard – as the high-born couple hoping to go just that little bit higher – aren’t the best thing about the film. That’s the superb filleting job that Todd Luiso, Jacob Koskoff and Michael Lesslie have done on Shakespeare’s original play, which has had many obscure references removed and has done away with any language that the visuals have rendered redundant. Everything left is invested in propelling the thing forward, whether it’s the taut performances by Paddy Considine as loving-dad Banquo or Sean Harris as Macduff (Harris’s piss-tang features making Macduff a credible check on the crazed “invincible” thane), or Jed Kurzel’s score, heavily influenced by the bagpipe’s drone, or the make-up – dirty, urgent, bloody and raw. Pretty damn fantastic.

Macbeth – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




The Martian (Fox, cert 12)

Ridley Scott goes back into space after the fiasco of Prometheus with a production that sensibly has hired in Drew Goddard as the writer. Goddard’s great strength is his flip attitude and love of popular culture, exactly the sort of things a person might reach for if he was – as Matt Damon’s astronaut is here – marooned on Mars on his own, with little chance of ever getting back to Earth. Without that quippy screenplay and its references to 1970s disco et al The Martian would look much like a re-run of Apollo 13. Goddard seems happy to acknowledge the fact – look out for Damon watching an episode of Happy Days, a sidelong reference to Apollo 13 director Ron Howard. The whole thing is procedural, in other words, and I watched entranced as the shipwrecked astronaut, in Robinson Crusoe style, started working on the technical means of keeping body and soul together – growing potatoes in human shit, creating water by burning hydrazine. This is the film that gave us the line “I’m gonna have to science the shit out of this”, eloquently suggesting that when people are in big trouble, they often react in a more light-hearted way than your standard Hollywood big-budget movie would suggest. Up on the spaceship where Damon’s fellow astronauts (led by Jessica Chastain) are heading back to Earth, initially unaware that he was alive when they left him behind, the tone is folksy (“Let’s go and get our boy,” says Commander Jess when she realises what’s happened). It’s only back at Mission Control – where an interesting collection of actors including Sean Bean, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig and the new-to-me and excellent Mackenzie Davis run around trying to find a solution to the “one of our astronauts is missing” problem – can the seriousness of the situation be admitted. As said, Ridley Scott atones for Prometheus here, with a film that’s intelligent and mercifully free of mythic bullshit, and even shows the old dog is capable of a new trick with the odd bit of novel visual whizzbangery. And he’s watched Gravity closely too, as the big finale making full use of that film’s Newtonian action-reaction dynamics makes clear. A gripping space adventure. With jokes.

The Martian – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




The Fear of 13 (Dogwoof, cert 15)

The Fear of 13 is a film that could easily be a podcast. In fact at one point I walked away and sat in the adjoining room, where I could still hear former jailbird Nick Yarris telling his life story, about how a petty thief and meth user became a convicted murderer on Death Row in Pennsylvania. There was no loss of impact – Yarris is such a good storyteller, and speaks in long, clear, articulate sentences of his time before and after his conviction, and how for many long years he tried to have his conviction for murder overturned. Who’d have thought that a guy sitting on a chair – or not even sitting on a chair if you’re in the next room – could be so compelling, but he is. The title comes from “triskaidekaphobia” one of the many words that the barely literate Yarris learnt after he discovered a love of reading and started consuming everything he could get his hands on. Big fan of Kipling. Why watch the film though? Because it’s a good story well told is one reason. Because it’s reminds us how exceedingly slowly the wheels of justice grind if the authorities are convinced they already have the right guy. And because, again, Yarris is such a good storyteller – the setbacks, the minor triumphs, the beatings, the draconian prison system, the illnesses, his time on the run, his marriage to a prison visitor (I know), his campaign for his own retrial, all are dealt with briskly, without false pity and with little rancour. Which in itself is unusual.

The Fear of 13 – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




Tangerines (Axiom, cert 15)

Chechnya, South Ossetia, Nagorno-Karabakh – the list of areas in the former Soviet Union where conflict has broken out consists of names few people could locate on a map. Where’s Ukraine, for example? And that’s a big one. The disputed region of Abkhazia is one such, and this film about a couple of old guys, and the couple of young guys they end up playing host to, puts a human face on a conflict most people still know little about. The old guys are a tangerine grower called Margus and his friend Ivo, who makes crates for the fruit Margus is hoping will somehow get to market. But the entire village that might have turned out to help Margus pick them fled from the village where both men live, most of them back to Estonia, their ethnic homeland, once Abkhazia descended into ethnic civil war. Into this virtually dead village come two warring factions and, after some quickfire action, crate-maker Ivo finds he is playing host to two wounded soldiers, one a Chechen mercenary called Ahmed, the other a much more badly hurt Georgian called Niko. Ahmed wants to kill Niko and Niko, once he’s well enough to understand who he is recuperating with, wants to kill Ahmed. That’s the basics of a small but beautifully formed and intensely humane film, shot, scripted, scored and played with extreme economy. It won’t surprise anyone to find out where this arc of extreme enmity is leading, but it’s all done with no sense of déjà vu, perhaps because the acting is so natural and unforced – take a bow Lembit Ulfsak, Elmo Nüganen, Giorgo Nakashidze and Misha Meskhiall. All round excellence, in fact. Well worth seeking out.

Tangerines – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




Star Men (Verve, cert PG)

A documentary following a gang of old mates as they return to the ground they stomped when they were young men. The guys in question are all astronomers, who are now all in their 70s and so benefited directly from the rush into space of the Kennedy era. They’re also, mostly, Brits, and so had the experience of a warp-speed transportation from a country still struggling to escape the drabness of the post-Second World War era to a California at the very height of its specialness – surfboards and sunshine and girls and all that. They’re joined in their revisit of various labs and telescopes by the film’s maker, Alison E Rose, who tries to inject a bit of jeopardy, as is the way of documentaries, in various hikes the men take, retracing trails they walked decades before. They’re not all well, and in fact the greatest service the film does – its ruminations on God and the Big Bang, life on other planets and so on to one side – is to remind us all that a life lived well, in pursuit of our interests and dreams, is really the only one worth leading. And that death, when it comes knocking, and it does in this film, is worth meeting head on.

Star Men – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




The Walk (Sony, cert PG)

If you’ve seen the documentary Man on Wire, this dramatisation of Philippe Petit’s 1974 World Trade Center highwire walk is unnecessary. Man on Wire is a better film dramatically and in every other way except one – this has Robert Zemeckis behind the controls at the point where Petit (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, his upper body and comportment testament to having been trained in wire-walking by Petit himself) steps out over the void between the Twin Towers and sets off on the 140-foot journey to the other side. It’s heart-stopping and for the last 25 minutes or so of the film you will be gripped. If, on the other hand, you haven’t seen Man on Wire, there’s no reason not to watch The Walk, and to approach it full of confidence that it’s a good story well told. And told here in thrilling 3D, if you have it, Zemeckis dropping in madly ridiculously obvious shots of arrows coming towards the viewer as Petit and team try to get a line across the gap between the two buildings. Support is very good – Ben Kingsley as Petit’s mentor, Charlotte Le Bon as his girlfriend and right hand woman to name but two. Of course neither film would have been made at all if the World Trade Center hadn’t been blasted out of existence on 11 September 2001, but Zemeckis keeps that dark knowledge in check – we’re all fully aware of what these buildings mean.

The Walk – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




Warriors (Verve, cert 12)

There are two documentaries sitting side by side here, in what’s being sold as one. The better of the two is an underdog story of a group of Masaai young men who have learnt cricket back home, and are now travelling to the Lord’s Cricket Ground in London, to play against other amateur teams. These guys have no one to play against back in Kenya, and their ground – scoured out of the red earth by the British Army – contains not a blade of grass. They are useless, though highly enthusiastic and are all gents, tall, straight, handsome and true. Watching them play in full tribal gear stirs the soul – this, surely, is what sport is all about? The other documentary concerns the efforts of these same men to get the practice of female genital mutilation (cutting) stopped back home in Kenya. The fact that the young men call it “FGM” – as do various young women who talk about it – gives us an idea as to where this idea has come from. But for this part of the documentary to have truly succeeded, I’d have wanted to know why exactly the practice developed in the first place – what is the benefit of it, if any, and for whom is it designed? No answer is forthcoming and so the sound of the propaganda drum being beaten is a bit loud, even though, to be honest, the time spent on FGM is brief, leading to the suspicion of tokenism, or perhaps even kitchensinkism – we’ve got it so let’s get it in, any old how. Hey ho – shiny-skinned Masaai warriors jubilant at going up the London Eye, it’s worth it for that.

Warriors – Watch it/buy it at Amazon







© Steve Morrissey 2016