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Roman Polanski and The Tragedy of Macbeth

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And then there are those times, in our darkest moments, when we seek narrative to give meaning and purpose to our lives. Understandable, therefore, that some film critics assumed hidden significance in Roman Polanski’s decision to film The Tragedy of Macbeth after the senseless murder of his wife Sharon Tate. This grim Shakespearean play–with its attendant themes of witchcraft, murder and unfettered ambition–was seen as a symbolic exorcism to the horrific events in August 1969, when members of the Manson Family broke into a house at 10050 Cielo Drive, Benedict Canyon, Los Angeles, and slaughtered all of the occupants.

Polanski had been in London scouting locations for another movie (The Day of the Dolphin), which he was never to make as the horror of what had happened almost destroyed him. The young director was left in a severe depression that took him nearly a year to recover from. As he later explained, “After the murders, everything I was considering seemed futile to me.

“I couldn’t think of a subject that seemed worthwhile or dignified enough to spend a year or more on it, in view of what happened to me. That may sound extremely pompous, but I couldn’t make another suspense story. And I certainly couldn’t make a comedy: I couldn’t make a casual film.”

The only project that seemed acceptable was his a half-forgotten desire to one day make a movie based on a Shakespeare play. The hope of this possibility slowly helped Polanski back to work. Here, he thought, was something he could do, something he could give himself, something worthy of the effort.

 

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Polanski collaborated with the controversial writer and critic Kenneth Tynan in adapting the play for the screen. The film was produced by Hugh Hefner, owner of Playboy, and Polanski and Tynan both decided that their movie would not to be like any other traditional Shakespearean drama with middle-aged actors proclaiming their lines in ill-fitting costumes, but rather a more realistic production–with the bloody murders kept on screen rather than off–which they would film on location in Scotland with a young and mainly unknown cast.

 

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For the role of Macbeth,  Polanski chose the actor Jon Finch after he had met him on a flight where he had been enamoured by Finch’s magnetism, exuberance and charm. Until then, Finch had mainly appeared in TV dramas (Z-Cars, Armchair Theatre) and a couple of Hammer Horror movies (The Vampire Lovers, The Horror of Frankenstein). Finch brought a resolute determination and cold arrogance to the role–watch how he murders King Duncan, and later kills soldiers without concern.

For Lady Macbeth, Polanski chose Francesca Annis–an actress with long television and stage experience–who brought a fierce hunger and loyalty to the role. These two were like proto-Thatcherites–ruthless, cunning, and seemingly determined to carry out their most basic desires with a seeming disregard to the folly of their actions

As the writer G. K. Chesterton noted:

…the whole point about Macbeth [is] that he knows what he is doing. It is not a tragedy of Fate but a tragedy of Freewill. He is tempted by a devil, but he is not driven by a destiny. If the actor pronounces the words properly, the whole audience ought to feel that the story may yet have an entirely new ending, when Macbeth says suddenly, “We will proceed no further in this business.” The incredible confusion of modern thought is always suggesting that any indication that men have been influenced is an indication that they have been forced. All men are always being influenced; for every incident is an influence. The question is, which incident shall we allow to be most influential. Macbeth was influenced; but he consented to be influenced.

 

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But finally Macbeth also reminds us the impossibility of a new beginning by closing the past with a bloody deed–when Macbeth murders Duncan he has sown his own destruction.

 

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Making Macbeth

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Francesca Annis as Lady Macbeth.
 
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The film’s producer Hugh Hefner with Roman Polanski at a press conference.

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  • Petronella

    Our Grade 11 class took a field trip to the university theatre to see a screening of this movie! The nudity caused a sensation amongst us 16-year-olds. I can’t believe our parents consented to let us see it.

    • Thanks Petronella. I recall a similar school trip with a similar response. Also, a long discussion on the bus back as to how they had filmed Macbeth killing Duncan in regard to the shot of the knife popping out of the other side of his neck. It was also fun to get out of double maths on a Wednesday! Best, Paul

    • Anoraks

      Ha. It was for, erm, research purposes