Tuesday, 31 October 2017

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, Macbeth is 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 Macbeth takes 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.

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Anonymous (2011)

Did the Earl of Oxford write Shakespeare (spoilers: No of course he didn't.)

Director: Roland Emmerich
Cast: Rhys Ifans (Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford), Vanessa Redgrave (Queen Elizabeth I), Sebastian Armesto (Ben Jonson), Rafe Spall (William Shakespeare), David Thewlis (Lord Burghley), Edward Hogg (Robert Cecil), Xavier Samuel (Earl of Southampton), Sam Reid (Earl of Essex), Jamie Campbell Bower (Young Oxford), Joely Richardson (Young Elizabeth I), Derek Jacobi (Himself), Mark Rylance (Henry Condell), Helen Baxandale (Anne de Vere)

Many people would say that, for as long as there has been Shakespeare, there have been arguments about who wrote him. But that would be wrong. Because at the time everyone knew it was Shakespeare. Murmurings grew in the nineteenth century, but it’s only in our bizarre more recent times, when everyone wants to feel that they are smarter than anyone else, that conspiracy theories have taken hold. This film dramatizes one of the most famous conspiracy theories – and takes it to the bonkers extreme, chucking in royal incest, bastard claimants to the throne and blood purity, like it’s desperate to be some sort of poetry-circle Game of Thrones.

Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans) is a genius. He has written hundreds of plays, despite never (it seems) setting foot in a theatre. When he does one day, he suddenly thinks – hang about I should get these on the stage! Looking for someone to put their name to the work, he approaches a reluctant Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) before credit is high-jacked mid performance by drunken dullard William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall). Oxford continues producing the plays through Shakespeare, carefully using them to influence the crowd to support the Earl of Essex’s (Sam Reid) campaign to succeed Queen Elizabeth (Vanessa Redgrave) and win her away from the influence of the Cecils (David Thewlis and Edward Hogg). 

It’s not often you get a film that is both a stinking, insulting piece of propaganda garbage, but on top of that is also a terrible film full stop. Anonymous is such a film. This mind-numbingly stupid, childishly idiotic film is probably the best case that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare to come out of Hollywood. Because, after watching this film, you’ll sure as shit be convinced it wasn’t someone as tedious, pompous and arrogant as Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford. Unbelievably Emmerich and co thought they were making a film that would reset the table of Shakespeare debate. The only thing that will need resetting will be your table after you’ve overturned it in fury.

Our film's Shakespeare goes crowd surfing in an Elizabethan mosh pit. Seriously.

The Oxfordian theory is yet another garbage “alternative history” that puts forward a candidate claimed to have “really wrote Shakespeare”. The central conceit usually goes something like this: Shakespeare was from a middle-class background, grammar school educated, never travelled and generally lacked the academic chops to write the plays. He was simply too common to be a genius. Ergo someone super smart must have done so instead.

The Oxford theory was put forward at the turn of the last century by (and I’m not making this up) Thomas Looney (yes it is literally a Looney Theory). It argues that Oxford was well travelled, well-educated and known as a poet so must have written the plays and poems. Shakespeare was hired to put his name on the plays because it was too shameful for an Earl to write for the theatre. Of course this doesn’t explain why Oxford had the sonnets released under Shakespeare’s name while allowing his own (not so good) poems to circulate freely – but facts never stopped these people. Oxford also inconveniently died in 1604, before the likely composition (and first performance) of over a third of the plays, but again never mind eh? 

Anyway, I’ll get into the film in a second, but I’ll leave you with this. All contemporary evidence points to Shakespeare being the author of Shakespeare’s plays. All evidence we have indicates he was recognised as the writer by his contemporaries. The much vaunted travel knowledge rests on a few well-known city names and landmarks (who could possibly have known Venice had a bridge called the Rialto? Oh I don’t know, maybe anyone hanging out in taverns in international trading-hub London?) and includes howlers like Bohemia having a coastline and it being possible to sail between Milan and Verona. All evidence of research (far too hard work for the Looneys) into typography and the composition of the plays points to Shakespeare or at least that many of the works were composed after Oxford’s death. I would also add that the bollocks (which this film explores) of Shakespeare not spelling consistently is no great surprise when standardisation of spelling was still over 100 years away. Anyway…

The clueless bumbling playwrights of the time.

Anonymous is well designed. It’s well shot. There are some decent costumes. Rafe Spall is okay as a ludicrously crude, shallow and dumb Shakespeare. Nothing and nobody else emerges from the film with any credit. It’s got the intellectual rigour of a child. It understands virtually nothing about the Elizabethan state. It even turns Elizabeth I (played direly by Vanessa Redgrave and a little bit better by Joely Richardson in flashback) into a hormonal idiot, a sex-obsessed harlot banging out bastards left, right and centre while wailing about how much she needs the man she loves. Even its understanding of theatre is crap. It is crap.

At the forefront of this steaming pile of manure is Rhys Ifans, utterly mis-cast from start to finish as super-genius Oxford. Ifans is bland, disengaged and bottled up, his manic potential completely wasted. Oxford comes across as an arrogant arsehole, talking down to fellow playwrights, ignoring his daughter, soaking up vicarious adulation from the crowd as if it was his right, and merrily putting his full weight behind an agenda stressing government should be left to those born to it, rather than the nouveaux rich Cecils. If an unpleasant prick like Oxford was soul of the age, it’s just as well time has moved on.

This viewpoint is all part of the film’s charmless embracing of the Looney theory that the plays are all a carefully constructed pro-Essex, pro-elitist propaganda machine, designed to manipulate the masses into staying in their place. To make this work, the film plays merry hell with history. Because nothing works better for a film claiming to be “true” history than to change established historical facts to better fit its story. Essex is repositioned as anti-James VI of Scotland, while the Cecils are shown to be advocates for his succession from day one. It hardly seems necessary to say that this was the complete opposite of their positions. The film can’t claim to be telling us the “real story” while simultaneously changing events left, right and centre to better fit its agenda.

Historical fast-and-looseness continues with Elizabeth I. Needless to say, half the male cast are her children – Essex, Southampton and (of course) even Oxford. This allows for lots of icky sex as an unknowing young Elizabeth and Oxford bump-and-grind. Even without the incest, this scene would still be revolting beyond belief. If this film has any claim to fame, it will be remembered as the film where the Virgin Queen performed fellatio on young Oxford (a weaselly Jamie Campbell Bower, dire as ever) while he recited Shakespearean sonnets. I watched this with a group of friends and this scene was met by horrified mass shrieking.

Mother and son share a post-coital moment

The land of the Elizabethan theatre doesn’t fare much better. Shakespeare’s contemporary playwrights are, to a man, plodding mediocrities dumb-founded that a play can be written entirely in verse. Poor Ben Johnson (Sebastian Armesto struggling manfully with a terrible part) in particular gets it in the neck, Oxford haughtily telling him he “has no voice”. Shakespeare is not only an idiot, he’s also money-grubbing, illiterate and (the film heavily implies) even murders Christopher Marlowe when he “works out the truth”. 

But that’s the thing about this film: it really doesn’t give a shit about facts. By the time we reach the Essex rebellion and the film has changed the one categorical fact we have linking Shakespeare to the rebellion (his company performed Richard II privately for Essex’s friends the night before) you’ll have ceased to care. (The film substitutes Richard III instead and claims the hunchbacked king was created as a portrait of Robert Cecil – never mind that the character had already appeared in two plays by this point…) The Tower is the centre of some sort of all-powerful police state that alternates between scarily efficient and ludicrously incompetent depending on the demands of the script.

Amidst this firebombing of history, the film weaves its pointless conspiracy theory. So of course, Oxford is not only the greatest writer ever, but as Elizabeth’s son he’s also the true King of England. He is such a special snowflake genius, he’s even (in the film’s most stupid scene) shown writing and performing (as Puck) A Midsummer Night’s Dream aged 14. In a skin-crawlingly shite scene, Oxford searches for a play to give to Johnson while the camera pans along shelves of masterpieces he has casually knocked out. I would argue the plays have clearly been written by someone with an intimate understanding not only of theatre but the strengths and weaknesses of the company of actors originally performing them – but then this is a film that turns Richard Burbage into a harassed theatre manager, so what would be the point. By the end of the film, the announcement is made that all evidence linking Oxford to the plays will be destroyed and he will be forgotten. So you see the very fact that there is no evidence that this ever happened, is in itself evidence.

I realise I’ve not even mentioned the framing device of this film. The film opens in a Broadway theatre – and rips off the idea from Henry V that we are watching a play performance that becomes ever more realistic. Notable Oxfordian Derek Jacobi (playing himself) even narrates, neatly shitting on the memory of the same function he served in Branagh’s Henry. I love Sir Derek, but honestly a little of that love died during this film as he sonorously intones this lunatic nonsense. He’s not the only one of course – Mark Rylance (another believer) shamelessly pops up for a cameo. Needless to say, at the end of the “performance” the crowd in the Broadway theatre leave in stunned silence. I like to think that, rather than having their perceptions of the world shaken, they were just stunned such an epic pile of fuckwitterey garbage made it to the stage.

Oh Sir Derek. How could you? How could you?

Or the screen for that matter. This is a dire, stupid film, poorly acted and woefully directed by a tone deaf director. Roland Emmerich, hie thee back to disaster porn! Everyone in it is pretty awful, the script not only stinks, it makes no sense, half the scenes are borderline embarrassing. Even if it wasn’t about a pretty distasteful Shakespearean authorship theory, this would still be a truly terrible film, a narrative and performance disaster. The only good thing about it is, the film is so bad, its conspiracy theory so unbelievably ludicrous, its fast-and-looseness with history so plain that, far from re-setting the table for Shakespearean studies, it seems to have fatally holed the Oxfordian theory below the water line. It’s offensive because it wants to peddle its bizarre agenda as true history, while simultaneously changing the historical events at every opportunity. Just fucking awful.