Tag: Roman Polanski

The Ghost Writer (2010)

The Ghost Writer (2010)

Conspiracies, lies and dirty politics surround a politician who definitely isn’t Blair in Polanski’s superb thriller

Director: Roman Polanski

Cast: Ewan McGregor (The Ghost), Pierce Brosnan (Adam Lang), Kim Cattrall (Amelia Bly), Olivia Williams (Ruth Lang), Tom Wilkinson (Professor Paul Emmett), Timothy Hutton (Sidney Kroll), Jon Bernthal (Rick Ricardelli), Tim Preece (Roy), Robert Pugh (Richard Rycart), David Rintoul (Stranger), Eli Wallach (Old Man), James Belushi (John Maddox)

An American publishing company is in dire straits. They’ve paid a fortune for the autobiography of former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), once seen as a visionary liberal idol but now blamed for a deeply controversial war in Iraq (sound familiar?). Problem is his trusted aide Mike McCara – who is actually writing the book – has been found drowned on Martha’s Vineyard where Lang, his wife Ruth (Olivia Williams) and staff are staying. The book needs to be finished in a month – but it’s in an unpublishable mess. Who ya gonna call? A Ghost writer (Ewan McGregor) of celebrity memoirs to finish the job of course. But will the Ghost resist trying to investigate whatever McCara uncovered in Lang’s life that may have led to his suspicious death?

Adapted from a novel by Robert Harris – who turned from a strong supporter of Blair, to terminally disenchanted – The Ghost Writer comes to the screen as a superbly controlled, perfectly placed piece of tight-wound tension from Roman Polanski, that mixes wonderful elements of Hitchcockian menace and Seventies conspiracy thriller, not to mention lashings of his own Chinatownbut here switched to the doom-laden drizzle of New York, rather than the sunkissed glory of California.

Set on a grim, grey and foreboding Martha’s Vineyard (although, for obvious legal reasons, actually filmed in Potsdam), Polanski lets every scene grow in unsettling tension. Very little explicit is every said, but danger from unknown, unseen forces is a constant presence. Accompanied by a Herrmann-esque score from Alexandre Desplat (also with a hint of a twist on Jerry Goldsmith’s work on Chinatown), this is film made with such calm, patient authority that its exudes engrossing tension. Polanski employs some beautiful touches, worthy of Hitchcock: from the Ghost, uncertain if he is being followed when boarding a car ferry, making a desperate run for freedom; to a wonderful tracking shot at a book launch that follows a note containing a vital reveal, passed from hand to hand through a crowd to the guilty speaker.

The Ghost Writer also has neat moments of dark comedy which also feels reminiscent of Hitchcock’s ability to mix dark chuckles with oppressive tension. The Ghost’s recruitment as a writer – and his hilariously frank suggestion that political memoirs are boring beyond belief – is a lovely lightly comic entrée that completely fails to prepare us for the conspiracy thriller that follows in all the right ways. Stuck in Lang’s house on Martha’s Vineyard, the Ghost tries to secretly download a copy of the memoir he is only allowed to read under supervision: his attempt coincides, to his terror, with what turns out to be a test of the alarm system. In the background of a shot during a monologue from Lang, a worker struggles with wearied patience to clean the wind-filled grounds of leaves, constantly, dutifully, collecting them back up as they blow away.

These moments of lightness make the dark even blacker. We are constantly left guessing as to who knows what. Was McCara murdered? What mysteries lie in Lang’s university past that McCara considered so important? Lang and his wife oscillate from welcoming to coldly distant. Particularly so with Ruth Lang, a superb performance from Olivia Williams. Ruth has, quite possibly, been the power behind the Lang throne, but now seems less sure of where she stands. She’s tense, without making clear why and at times painfully blunt. Suffering no fools, brittle, sharply intelligent, coldly determined, her surprisingly vulnerability draws the Ghost in, despite him knowing its “a bad idea”.

But then The Ghost makes more than a few bad ones. Perhaps because he gets fed up with people thinking he’s stupid and is too keen to prove them wrong. Ewan McGregor is wonderful as a man who spends most of his time wearily ignoring digs at the fact he’s best known for ghosting the autobiography of a celebrity chef. The Ghost – as in Harris’ book he remains un-named, suitable for a man whose job is to pretend to be his client – seems to be a disconnected observer, but emerges as a dogged detective – even if he is painfully out of his depth and acting way beyond his expertise. He becomes increasingly panicked at the terrifying world of international politics and espionage, like a beginner swimmer dropped in the deep end, while unable to stop himself digging further, like picking at a scab.

The film picks at its own scab with the legacy of Blair. Brosnan’s confident, charismatic performance captures an impression of Blair while never trying to be an impersonation. He perfectly conveys the easy charm and casual but shallow warmth of the professional politician, but the slightest scratch of the surface reveals a man who feels hard-done-by and undervalued and sick of being judged for making the tough calls. Polanski allows him moments of sympathy: it’s hard not to see his point when he makes the case for what many would call intrusive security and the self-righteousness of his persecutor, former foreign secretary Ryecart (Robert Pugh, channelling Robin Cook) hardly warms the viewer (or the Ghost) to him.

The Ghost Writer manages to make its political parallels – especially about Iraq – pointed but not too heavy handed. (There is a lovely performance from David Rintoul as a calmly spoken former-army type who turns out to be a rabid anti-war protester). It imaginatively fictionalises a version of history, humanising characters who could otherwise be crude caricatures. The cast are wonderful and this is an intelligent, gripping, classic conspiracy thriller. Mastered by Polanski, who assembles the film with such control that it takes a cold grasp of your heart without ever seeming to overwork itself. As the credits roll, Polanski having left us with a poetically tragic image of pages blowing emptily in the wind on a London street, you’ll realise how the quiet doom so expertly built could only have led to one thing. The Ghost shoulda forgot about it: its Chinatown.

The Pianist (2002)

Adrien Brody is outstanding in the compelling The Pianist

Director: Roman Polanski

Cast: Adrien Brody (Wladyslaw Szpilman), Thomas Kretschmann (Captain Wilm Hosenfeld), Frank Finlay (Samuel Szpilman), Maureen Lipman (Edwarda Szpilman), Emilia Fox (Dorota), Ed Stoppard (Henryk Szpilman), Julia Raynor (Regina Szpilman), Jessica Kate Meyer (Halina Szpilman), Ronan Vibert (Andrzek Bogucki), Ruth Platt (Janina Bogucki), Andrew Tiernan (Szalas)

Few directors have as personal a link with the Holocaust as Roman Polanski. As a boy, he witnessed his parents deported to their deaths, surviving only by chance, escaped the Krakow Ghetto and was sheltered by a Catholic family. The lasting impact is clear to anyone who has seen a Polanski film and he avoided Holocaust projects for decades (including Spielberg’s offer to direct Schindler’s List). The Pianist was the film he made on this trauma. Perhaps because the experience of Wladyslaw Szpilman was, in many ways, similar to his own.

Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody) is a famous Polish concert pianist. As the German occupation begins, Szpilman and his family face the cruel downward spiral of the new regime’s anti-Semitic policies. Very quickly, laws move from a ban on Jews in public places, to wearing Star of David badges to herded into ghettos. In the ghettos, life is a terrifying struggle, as the German occupiers shift from simple bullying to acts of random, indiscriminate murder. The whim of a German soldier decides whether you live or die. Szpilman’s family are eventually deported to Treblinka, but by a twist of fate Szpilman escapes – and finds himself hiding in Warsaw for years, sheltered by the Polish resistance, desperately trying to survive until the war ends.

Polanski’s film is heart-breakingly sincere and the documentary matter-of-factness it presents appalling, unjustifiable crimes gives great power to the whole film. It never blinks or looks away, and never offers false hope or sentiment. Only the terrible realisation that nothing can have any impact on whether you live or die: death could come from as little a thing as dropping a brick. People are plucked from lines and shot, speaking at the wrong moment is a death sentence and people in wheelchairs are tipped out of fifth storey windows.

There are moments where Polanski seems to be commenting on Schindler’s List’s touches of melodrama: that film featured a Jewish man saved from death by a German officer’s gun jamming – when the same thing happens in here, the German officer calmly stops, carefully reloads the gun, checks it and shoots his victim in the head. That’s the reality. The Pianist tracks all this with a traditionalist, stable camera and a marked restraint. There is no flair, or immersion, to any of this film. Instead, it grimly and calmly shows you each horror.

There is also no sense of fate or destiny. Szpilman survives – while every other Jewish character he encounters does not – not because of things he does himself, but because of chance, luck and risks taken by others. There is a powerful will to survive in Szpilman, but you can say the same for thousands of others. And, as the film demonstrates time and again, determination and desire to live won’t save you if a German officer decides to make an example of you.

Polanski’s film is honest and shocking in its presentation of the descent into brutality in the ghetto. The film chillingly presents the viciousness of what starts as bullying – the German officers who smack Szpilman’s father (a dignified Frank Finlay) around and force him to walk in the gutter – into killing-for-sport. Literally so: German officers turf out the occupants of a building, just for the ‘fun’ of shooting them down like rabbits in their car headlights as they run away.

While the first half of the film covers the horrors of the Ghetto – from over-crowding, to deportations to the increasingly open and random violence – the second half becomes a survival tale that owes a lot to the unsettling horror films of Polanski’s early career. Hiding in a series of apartments, knowing discovery will lead to instant death, Szpilman find himself in a terrifying city where the slightest sound will condemn him. After the noise of the ghetto, the silence of these apartments – and the long periods of silence from Szpilman himself – become increasingly overbearing, while also helping build the dread of discovery.

The only sound we hear are the piano concertos Szpilman is reduced to playing in his head. Frequently Szpilman’s hands move to play an imaginary piano. In one apartment, there sits a piano he can never play: nevertheless his first act is to open it and let his hands dance perfectly above the keys, imagining the music they produce. It’s a brilliant reminder of the ordinary life he has been forced to leave behind – and how, even when things are at their worst, we cling to the things that make us human.

As Szpilman weakens and grows pale in his apartment prisons, he witnesses both the Ghetto uprising of 1943 and the Warsaw uprising of 1944. Polanski treats this urban war with the same chilling matter-of-factness as the rest. From Szpilman’s window we see bodies fall and buildings burn. People slump dead in unusual, un-cinematic positions – a woman, shot in the back, falls to her knees and slumps forward – and with an abrupt, horrible finality. Only someone who has seen death in war, could film it like this.

When Szpilman finally emerges into Warsaw – a city Polanski has only let us see as Szpilman sees it, a few buildings, a street or two – he finds the city a burned-out ruin. It’s the first crane shot of the whole film, that until then has kept its formal angles down at the level Szpilman has experienced. The wreck of the city also matches Szpilman, now an emaciated, mute Beckettian tramp, clutching his only food, a can of pickles.

Despite all this, the film is full of good, brave people who help Szpilman, many of them in the Polish resistance. Most affectingly of all is the touch of hope the story offers – the last to help is a German pfficer (affectingly played by Thomas Kretschmann). The motives of this character are left vague – is it kindness, weariness with war, disgust at Nazism or just another whim – perhaps because all we know is this man, who helped many others as well, died in 1952 in a Soviet prison camp. For all that, seeing a good man in a uniform worn by so many murderers,  gives you hope something can come out of this wreckage.

At the heart is Adrien Brody, who gives a transformatively superb performance as Szpilman. Wry and dry at first, the film sees him being hollowed out into someone scared, desperate and finally emaciated and traumatised. Brody’s brilliance is in stressing there is nothing out of the ordinary to Szpilman beyond his piano playing. He has to learn to bear the guilt of having no choice but to walk away while his family are killed. But he never loses his humanity and dignity – even as a frazzled tramp, when finally allowed to play a piano, after a pause he launches into a performance of breath-taking cathartic release. It’s a superb performance.

The Pianist showcases the sadistic whim that drove the Holocaust. Death is not operatic, but functional, everyday and comes without warning. The film is unflashy, almost classical in its approach, carefully paced and un-melodramatic. But that reflects the lack of romance in war and the grinding terror and suffering of just surviving. By focusing on a single man’s story and experience, it helps us begin to appreciate that his story was just one of millions. That helps make The Pianist one of the most compelling, moving and brilliant Holocaust dramas ever made.

Chinatown (1974)

Jack Nicholson struggles against the system – and loses – in Chinatown

Director: Roman Polanski

Cast: Jack Nicholson (JJ Gittes), Faye Dunaway (Evelyn Cross Mulwray), John Huston (Noah Cross), Perry Lopez (Lt Lou Escobar), John Hillerman (Russ Yelburton), Darrell Zwerling (Hollis Mulwray), Diane Ladd (Ida Sessions), Roy Jenson (Claude Mulvihill), Roman Polanski (Man with Knife), Joe Mantell (Lawrence Walsh), Burt Young (Curly), James Hong (Kahn)

“Of course I’m respectable. I’m old. Politicians, ugly buildings and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.” So says Noah Cross in the superlative Chinatown, the sort of the film you’ll want to start watching again the second it ends. Cross is of course a respectable businessman and an absolute monster. And his mantra applies just as much to Los Angeles as envisioned by Polanski and writer Robert Towne. It’s a corrupt, dirty place where terrible, appalling things are regularly allowed to happen but everyone pretends the place is fabulous. It’s such a sublime film, while also so bleakly, despairingly dark that you are surprised you fall in love with its excellence.

In 1937 private detective JJ “Jake” Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is hired – or so he thinks – by the wife of Water Board director Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling) to investigate his infidelity. When he does seem to uncover it, he founds not only was his client not Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), but that shortly after his pictures appeared in the press (without his knowledge), Hollis himself winds up dead, having drowned in a dry river bed. What does this all mean? And how does Evelyn’s father (and Hollis’ business partner) Noah Cross (John Huston) play into this all? Gittes investigates further, to uncover shady schemes to manipulate the cities water supply for profit, under-handed business deals and unspeakable family crimes that leave lives shattered.

Polanski’s film has such a timeless wonder about it, perhaps because it was filmed with such careful and beautifully designed classicism that it has never dated. Seen at the time as a film told in the style of the classic film noirs (although it is of course full of blazing LA sunshine), but crammed with a darkness and corruption classic Hollywood shied away from it now seems to take its place as the most masterful of Hollywood mysteries. It’s recreation of 1930s detail is perfect, while its film making is restrained, controlled, unflashy but creates an atmosphere of simmering mystery and tension behind every frame. It’s a masterfully restrained piece of film-making that deals with matters of shocking horror.

And tension there should be as this explores the darkest underbelly of America. With Jerry Goldsmith’s sublime music score under every beat – riffing on classic Hollywood tunes, but with a haunting faded grandeur that suggests a whole melancholic world going to the wall – the film looks like classic, beautiful America but uses that to counter-frame terrible, heartless acts. LA is corrupt from top to bottom. Businessmen are asset stripping the city and its surroundings to line their own pockets. Wealth brings total immunity from all sorts of crimes, regardless of how foul they are. Even family ties are polluted by terrible lusts and greed. And for Gittes, Chinatown is representative of this – a one word reference to his career as a cop, where his ability to do any good at all was forever compromised by corruption.

Jack Nicholson’s performance as Gittes is central to the film’s success. He’s in every scene and the story is told entirely from his point-of-view – so much so that when he is knocked out, Polanski slowly fades out sound and picture. Nicholson is best known for his flamboyance, but here he brilliantly underplays too present a complex picture of an idealist disguised as a cynic. Gittes tries his best to coolly accept the world is what it is, and even that he is just trying to get what he can out of it. But he’s in fact a decent and honourable man with a deep-rooted sense of morality, who struggles in the world because it’s ill-suited for a guy who just wants to do the right thing. He has a sort of outdated charm and nobility about him, an almost courtly gentleness at times, and only lashes out in anger when he feels is either being lied to or his sense of honour impugned. He has a natural sympathy for the little guy and for all he may try to spin the sort of cynical Marlowesque dialogue, you don’t feel his heart is really in it. He is a dreamer who wants to believe.

And he’s totally ill-suited to this world he ends up with. Gittes uncovers every inch of the mystery – but nothing he does has any positive impact. He completely fails to protect anyone, his attempts to ensure happy endings end in disaster, he’s regularly beaten to a pulp (most famously having his nose slit by a cameoing Polanski as a weasily little hoodlum) and he’s at sea when dealing with most of the characters of the film. Even his carefully built emotional armour breaks down, leaving him vulnerable to making even more mistakes. There are perhaps few characters so ineffective – and again it’s a credit to Jack Nicholson’s charisma that he makes this character feel like such a proactive figure.

Gittes senses at all times that there is some dark secret underpinning all these events he encounters. But he’s too innocent to begin to suspect the horrors that Evelyn has put up with at the hands of her abusive father. Faye Dunaway brings a marvellous fragility and vulnerability to a character who transcends the traditional femme fatale. (Dunaway famously hated both Polanski and working on the movie). At first seeming imperious and even suspicious, the film slowly breaks her character down into a wounded and vulnerable woman putting on a front, determined to try and protect herself but doomed to forever be the victim.

And Noah Cross is the dark heart of this. Played with a sensational sense of gentility masking supreme corruption and greed by John Huston, Cross is genteel and polite while being ruthless and grasping. He also reveals himself capable of huge, destructive acts, indifferent to the pain this causes and utterly implacable in his vileness. Huston’s performance – he’s only in three scenes – embodies the terrible dark heart of America, where money and power it seems can let you get away with anything you want, no matter who knows. (And I love the way he persistently mispronounces Gittes name, turning it into a growling Anglo-saxon “Gits”.)

Robert Towne’s superb screenplay is perfectly paced and pieces together an intricate and fascinating plot where every small detail mounts together into a devastating whole. It’s a film that demands careful watching, and that revels in small details and character beats that gain greater impact the more you see the film. Brilliantly, the macguffin here is water – the control of a substance that should be a right for every man, becoming a superb metaphor for the theft from ordinary Americans of justice and their country. 

The film culminates – as you feel it must when watching it – in a nihilistic ending where evil triumphs and good loses out. “Forget it Jake – it’s Chinatown”, goes the famous closing line. It works so superbly, because in Towne’s and Polanski’s vision of America here, there is no chance of the right thing winning out if the powers that be would have otherwise. With Jake’s Chinatown career in the police force becoming emblematic of everything that’s wrong in American justice, sure it makes sense that his return there as a private eye would see the same outcome. Towne pushed for a more upbeat ending, but Polanski knew – correctly – that only the shock of murder could end this tale, especially a murder that would have no repercussions.

Polanski’s direction is faultless, cool, calm, wonderfully observant with a superb sense of the 1930s – the film looks beautiful – and using the sunlight and brightness of LA to stress that just because we can see clearly, doesn’t mean we understand what we are looking at. With one of the greatest scripts ever – and a superb performance by Jack Nicholson in one of his finest roles – this is one of the best mysteries in Hollywood history, a timeless classic.

Tess (1979)

Nastassja Kinski is Thomas Hardy’s tragic heroine in Polanski’s Tess

Director: Roman Polanski

Cast: Nastassja Kinski (Tess Durbeyfield), Peter Firth (Angel Clare), Leigh Lawson (Alec Stokes-d’Urberville), John Collin (John Durbeyfield), Rosemary Martin (Mrs Durbeyfield), Carolyn Pickles (Marian), Richard Pearson (Vicar of Marlott), David Markham (Reverend Clare), Pascale de Boysson (Mrs Clare), Suzanna Hamilton (Izzy Huett), Tony Church (Parson Tringham)

At first sight it looks like a rather odd project for Roman Polanski: a faithful adaptation of a Thomas Hardy novel, shot in sumptuous period detail. But look a little closer and you’ll see it’s a neat fit for the director’s interests. A human interest story that revolves around the man’s capability for misusing, abusing and disregarding his fellows. With isolation, despair and depression thrown into the mix (what do you expect, it’s Thomas Hardy?!) and a depressing conclusion (again, it’s Hardy…) it feels less and less like an anomaly in its director’s CV. On top of this, it’s the film Polanski planned to make starring his murdered wife Sharon Tate (the film is dedicated to her memory).

Tess (Nastassja Kinski) is a young girl growing up in 1870s “Wessex” (Hardy surely the first major writer to create his own universe of interlocking stories in a fictional location). Her life is thrown into chaos when her father (John Collin) learns his family descends from the ancient lineage of d’Urbervilles. Tess is sent to find work and, maybe, fortune with her “cousin” Alec Stokes-d’Urberville (Leigh Lawson). But instead of a place at the family table, she finds herself charmed and then seduced (and perhaps raped) by Alec, leaving the house disgraced and pregnant. A few years later, she meets would-be-farmer and idealistic parson’s son Angel Clare (Peter Firth) – but their marriage cannot survive revelations of her past. As Tess’ life unravels, she is thrown into ever more desperate situations that entangle both men in her life with fatal consequences.

Polanski’s film is shot with a wonderful eye for period and makes extensive use of the “magic hour” (just after sunrise or just before sunset) to place some truly gorgeous images on the screen. Despite this, the film never compromises on the grinding lack of glamour in poverty, and few period dramas have had such an eye for mud, uncleanliness and shabby huts and bedding arrangements than this one. Polanski spent years making the film in several carefully selected locations, designed to make France look as much like Dorset as possible (for obvious legal reasons, Polanski had to rule out filming on location in England).

In this, Polanski creates a heartfelt drama of human suffering, with Tess repackaged as a sort of “every-woman” sufferer, whose entire life is shattered by a passing comment made to her father by a distant clergyman (a man whom we never see again). It’s part of Polanski’s theme of how events that we have little or no control over can shatter our lives and change the entire path of our existence. Tess frequently finds her life changed or altered by the actions of third parties (from the parson who speaks to her father, to the parish do-gooders who find the working boots she has quietly taken off to make a good impression for people she never meets and take them to a poor house – the sort of stunning moment of bleak “blow-upon-a-bruise” that the film does so well) and has no real power over what happens to her.

When she does finally take decisive actions with the two men in her life, both events rebound with tragic consequences on her – first with her rejection by Angel and then by her final escape from the influence of Alec. In between, we see her drifting gloomily from location to location, never able to find the energy, will or strength to make her life her own. Polanski’s film seizes on Hardy’s themes that we become trapped in our own fates, events spiralling constantly to leave us ever more at the mercy of factors over which we have no control. Tess is an isolated character, with few friends and confidantes, and whom society has left behind. It’s a film that follows an individual in a monolithic society with its own rules and structures, that makes no room for personal circumstances when rushing to its judgements.

Making Tess an innocent victim meant Polanski needed to cast someone who would not bring too much overt “actor” presence. Kinski, only 16 when filming started, brings a very natural innocence and gentleness to the role. She is certainly completely believable as a young woman who cannot truly understand what all these men who take such an interest in her really want, and feels unable to impose herself (just as Kinski struggles to impose herself on the film) on her life. That Kinski is not the strongest actor in the world, and that her accent erratically drifts between Dorset and Dutch, is counterbalanced by this gentle, unprocessed innocence. It matches perfectly Polanski’s idea of Tess as a victim, trapped in a perfectly constructed world.

It also allows the two men in her life a bit more scope for some domineering acting. Peter Firth does a very good job as the idealistic Angel who turns out to be nowhere near as liberal or understanding as he would like to think he is, until it is way too late. Firth walks a very neat line between sanctimonious, naïve and pompous. He also makes a great contrast with Leigh Lawson’s corrupt creepiness as the pervy Alec, all moustachio-twirling charm and caddish manner, but hiding a desire beneath to be the decent, better man.

Polanski positions Tess as the constant victim pulled between these two men, from the beautifully filmed misty forest glade where Alec forces his attentions on her, to the eccentrically furnished would-be family home (complete with lascivious elderly maid, giggling about the possibilities of the couple’s wedding night) where her marriage to Angel falls apart. It’s a film where Polanski throws in many lovely touches that ground the film in a particular time and place, from that giggling maid to the ominous sound of hedge-clippers when Angel arrives at seaside hotel in search of Tess. Every moment of the film feels realistically placed in Hardy’s Wessex, and it’s crammed with small sequences and moments that stick in the mind.

It’s a film with a masterful understanding of time and place (it rightly won Oscars for cinematography, costumes and production design) but uses that to build a story of a woman made an internal victim in a society that thinks it cares, but really doesn’t. Tess is a woman whose life is buffeted and changed by the actions of others, and who cannot escape from the dark shadows of being trapped in her own destiny. You can see why these themes appealed to Polanski – and perhaps this helps explain why the film feels like such a darkly personal one, right up to its near final image of Tess as a sacrificial victim laid out at Stonehenge.

Macbeth (1971)


Francesca Annis and Jon Finch as the murderous Macbeth’s in Polanski’s dark Shakespearean adaptation

Director: Roman Polanski

Cast: Jon Finch (Macbeth), Francesca Annis (Lady Macbeth), Martin Shaw (Banquo), Terence Bayler (Macduff), John Stride (Ross), Nicholas Selby (King Duncan), Stephen Chase (Malcolm), Paul Shelley (Donalbain), Richard Pearson (Doctor), Diane Fletcher (Lady Macduff)

Roman Polanski is always going to be a controversial figure. If he wasn’t also a gifted film maker, his reputation would be even lower than it is. His life has been a parade of misfortunes and misdemeanours. Macbeth was filmed a few years after his wife, Sharon Tate, was brutally murdered by Charles Manson. Hard not to read something into the director’s decision to film Shakespeare’s most infamous murderer. Certainly it was hard for reviewers at the time to disconnect the two. Throw in the fact that the film was made by Playboy Productions’ short lived film-making arm (with Hugh Hefner as Executive Producer) and you’ve got a film ripe for a poor reputation.

However, Macbethis actually a dynamic, well-filmed, surprisingly textually savvy production of this shortest and most intense of Shakespeare’s tragedies. While there is no doubt that this very much Polanski’s personal vision of Macbeth, it’s a fascinatingly dark, grim and horror-inflected production that really gets to grips with the darkness at the play’s heart – and also with the slightly empty, little-boy-lost quality in Macbeth himself (until then a character seen on screen largely as the brooding thane, laid low by his evil wife).

Polanski’s Macbethtakes place in a world where violence is second nature, life is cheap and grim slaughter is around every corner. One of the first acts we see is a soldier checking bodies on the battlefield. Finding a wounded soldier, he breaks his spine with two sickening blows from a flail. That’s just a precursor for the violent mood that will follow. Mangled bodies and bleeding corpses constantly appear, from Duncan’s guards to the twisted corpses of the Macduff children. Even when relaxing at the court, the Macbeths set up a bear baiting (kept off-screen) – the bear’s corpse (along with a few dogs) is later dragged through the palace corridors, leaving a trail of blood. 

Polanski’s Scotland is a savage, medieval, uncivilised place. Macbeth’s castle is a more like an elaborate farm, with wooden huts and mud-stained floors, than a mighty fortress. Every character looks swarthy, run-down and dirty. Colour has been drained out of the film in favour of muted greys and browns. There is precious little hope here, just a terrible onslaught of violence and murder that never seems to stop.

The brutality is constant, and Macbeth is up to his arms in it. Even the murder of Duncan doesn’t pass off without a hitch – the King awakens and has to be dispatched with panicked desperation. Banquo is finished off with a sickening axe thud in the back, his body dropping lifelessly into a stream. Even Macbeth’s faithful factotum Seyton is brutally lynched while trying to prevent his soldiers from deserting Dunsinane. The assault on the Macduff family is hideous in its fierceness: the house is burnt down, the servants (and its implied Lady Macduff) raped, while the children are brutally murdered (thankfully off-screen in most cases). It’s a harrowing slaughter that brings to mind World War II atrocities – and of course Polanski’s own recent tragedy. 

In this world, Macbeth is intriguingly presented as far less of a noble poetic hero than audiences at the time would have expected. Jon Finch’s Thane is low-key and lost, a puppet in the events happening around him. He’s almost like a slightly at-sea kid, who’s stumbled into power and has no idea what to do with it. His poetic soul is revealed as flashes of inspiration in an otherwise empty man. With many of the speeches internalised in voice-over, Macbeth’s sound and fury is deliberately toned down – by the end he seems weary and finished in a way few other Macbeths feel. His isolation throughout the play is complete – he’s incapable of relating to other people.

Similarly, Francesca Annis presents a fresher view of Lady Macbeth than a cartoon villain. While clearly still alluring (there was much controversial, Playboy-related, buzz to her famous naked sleepwalking scene) she’s equally as adrift as Macbeth is, totally unprepared for the psychological impact of murder. Excited and perhaps even a bit turned on by power, she falls apart as the impact of her actions grabs hold – it seems to be happening from the very start, her swooning when seeing the corpses of Duncan’s guards seems genuine rather than forced. Polanski even places her suicide on screen – her despairing leap accompanied by screams of terror from her waiting women.

 

In this grim world, there is a paganish, primitive feeling. Macbeth is crowned in a strange ceremony that involves him standing bare foot on the stone of scone. The Thane of Cawdor is executed by being hung by a metal chain (he defiantly jumps from the battlements rather than being pushed) while the court stares on. The witches are a crazed harem of naked women of all ages, engaged in bizarre, sadistic ceremonies in a secret subterranean den. The opening shot of the film uses a bright, bleached yellow sun that seems to stretch over a desolate coast-line, where the witches are burying a human hand clutching a dagger. Macbeth’s visions are a series of surreal and disturbing images, while Banquo’s ghost is an increasingly bloody and terrifying image as the scene progresses. There is a sense of strange powers hanging over everything.

And maybe that power is fate. This is also a fatalistic film, which runs with the theory that Shakespeare’s tragedies are almost circular in nature (very much inspired by Polish writer Jan Kott in his excellent book Shakespeare: Our Contemporary) with fate as a machine that traps people into an endless cycle of repetition. This feeling runs throughout Macbeth’s increasingly fatalistic disengagement with the world – the (excellent) sword fights at the end even see him fight with a certainty in advance of the results. The cyclical nature of this world is hammered home at the end, as Donalbain sneaks away from the celebrations of Malcolm’s crowning to consult with the witches in their hovel – hold onto your horses, the cycle is all set to begin again.

The film is also creative in its use of Shakespeare, in particular in its expansion of the character of Ross. Polanski and his co-screenwriter, famed theatre critic Ken Tynan, again followed Kott’s theories by repositioning Ross as the ultimate political opportunist. Helped by John Stride’s expressive performance, Ross is a constant figure of vileness, allying himself eagerly with whoever is on the rise. Ross assists in the murder of Banquo, murders the murderers and aids the destruction of the Macduff family. Overlooked for a chain of office in favour of Seyton, he swiftly reverses his stance and flies to Malcolm (much to Macbeth’s later fury) and then loudly leads the cheers for Malcolm’s crowning. It’s a neat side story, done with camera asides and no dialogue changes, but it adds a lot of interest to the film.

Macbeth ends with a gruelling beheading of Macbeth – and stylish angles gives the impression that we are experiencing Macbeth’s final moments of consciousness as his head is passed around Malcolm’s soldiers. It’s a neat way to end a violent and dark production of the play, shot through with Polanski’s personal awareness of the darkness of the human soul. The film sometimes loses its pace a little bit, and most of the performances leave very little impression – there is a reason why virtually no one in this film had a really established film career. Even the language of Shakespeare isn’t central here: it’s the experience of a brutal, dark and grim world that matters. It’s the images and visuals that stand out. It’s very much Polanski’s Macbeth.