Who is the Macbeth-est of them all?

 

(c) Studiocanal S.A. / Channel Four Television

 

In response to some big anniversary celebrations going on in the United Kingdom at the moment, I have just succumbed to the urge to watch a movie about regicide.

 

No, the celebrations that made me do this weren’t those marking Queen Elizabeth II’s 90th birthday, which has predictably caused epic levels of shameless bowing and scraping, toadying, grovelling and brown-nosing in the British media.  To give just one of many examples, the Daily Mail’s Chris Deerin tweeted a photo of the Queen posing with various grandkids and great-grandkids accompanied by the message: “It’s all about a family.  That’s why it works.  It’s beautiful.”  Oh, pass the sick-bag.

 

I’m actually referring to the festivities marking the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death on April 23rd.  And the film I have just watched is the Justin Kurzel-directed version of Macbeth, released a year ago and starring Michael Fassbender as the king-stabbing, crown-grabbing title character.  It’s left me with mixed emotions.

 

On the negative side, the drama feels subdued at times, thanks to the amount of low-volume muttering and mumbling going on that rather takes the fire out of Shakespeare’s lines.  I suspect the reason why the cast, which includes Marion Cotillard as Lady Macbeth, David Thewlis as Duncan, Paddy Considine as Banquo, Sean Harris as Macduff and Jack Reynor as Malcolm, downplay things is because the main actors are Irish, French and English and they don’t feel terribly comfortable doing the required Scottish accents.  The film contains a couple of hardy old Scottish character actors as well, David Hayman and Maurice Roëves; but, playing Lennox and Menteith respectively, they’re well down the cast-list.

 

There’s also much that’s been chopped out of this version of the Scottish play.  It runs for an hour and fifty minutes, which is forty minutes less than the stage production scheduled for the Globe Theatre in London this summer.  Out goes the post-regicide comedy relief with the porter; and most of the “Double, double toil and trouble / Fire burn and cauldron bubble” hijinks with the witches.  There’s no murder scene in Macduff’s castle, which deprives us of the first murderer’s cry of “What, you egg!” followed by the pun, “Young fry of treachery!”  There’s no sleepwalking Lady Macbeth, though she gets to utter her “Out, damned spot” line elsewhere.   And I don’t recall hearing Macbeth intone Act 3 Scene 2’s “Light thickens and the crow / Makes wing to the rooky wood. / Good things of day begin to droop and drowse / Whiles night’s black agents to their prey do rouse,” though maybe it was just buried low in the mix.

 

On the other hand, the film looks lovely – and that’s in spite of the post-Braveheart quantities of dirt, mud, blood, woad, facial hair and scar tissue on view.  I’m sure Visit Scotland won’t complain about the free advertisement that this Macbeth provides for the Isle of Skye, where many of its outdoor scenes were shot.  Mind you, a good part of it was also filmed in England, at Bamburgh Castle in Northumberland and Ely Cathedral in Cambridgeshire.

 

(c) Studiocanal S.A. / Channel Four Television

 

And the final sequence, where Macbeth squares up to Macduff, is stunning.  Their swordfight takes place against an infernal and almost hallucinogenic orange-red backdrop while Birnam Wood burns off-screen.  For yes, the scriptwriters Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie and Todd Louiso have cooked up – and ‘cook’ is the operative word – a novel way of bringing Birnam Wood to the castle on Dunsinane Hill.

 

One element that Kurzel and his writer add to this Macbeth, as opposed to cut out of it, creates an interesting motif.  They preface the drama with a scene where Macbeth and his wife bid adieu to their only child, whose body is laid out on a funeral pyre.  Their subsequent childlessness is contrasted with the situation of Banquo, who has a son, Fleance; and that of Macduff, who has a brood of kids.  (The little Macduffs aren’t put to the sword by anonymous assassins, as in the play, but are tied to stakes on a beach and set alight by Macbeth himself.)  Even the witches here have a couple of offspring — one of them is nursing a baby and there’s a little girl-witch who turns up to help Fleance escape when his father gets murdered.

 

Indeed, the childlessness / fecundity ironies come thick and fast.  We see Macbeth press a dagger against his wife’s womb at one point and inflict a nasty-looking crotch wound on Macduff at another.  And when Duncan fatefully arrives at the Macbeths’ place to stay for the night, his hosts lay on a choir of little children for his entertainment.  Though it has to be said that Duncan and his entourage watch the show with as much enthusiasm as parents having to sit through a primary-school nativity play.  No wonder Duncan’s bodyguards get so drunk afterwards.

 

(c) Caliban Films / Playboy Productions / Columbia Pictures

 

Maybe my real issue with Justin Kurzel’s new Macbeth is simply that I kept expecting Fassbender and Cotillard to suddenly disappear in a puff of smoke and be replaced by Jon Finch and Francesca Annis – who were the stars of Roman Polanski’s version of Macbeth back in 1970, a movie that made a big impression on me.  I was 16 when I saw it, so no doubt one reason why I took to it was because the film’s qualities – its simultaneous bleakness, bloodiness, bawdiness, gothic-ness, gorgeousness, rebelliousness and sophistication – mirrored the mix of emotions and hormones seething in my teenaged head and body at the time.  And also, at 16, I probably felt a connection with the film because Finch and Annis were both so young when they made it.  In fact, their youthfulness suggests they have little power to control their destinies.  They’re swept along with events, propelled by dark forces that are both political and supernatural.

 

Polanski’s Macbeth was disliked by many critics who were upset by its violence and were disturbed by the fact that Polanski’s recent past had been pretty violent too.  In August 1969, his pregnant wife Sharon Tate and four others were butchered at his home in Beverly Hills by followers of the hippie-cult lunatic Charles Manson.  Pauline Kael, the film critic for the New Yorker, even wondered if Polanski’s staging of the murders of Macduff’s family was an attempt to recreate the carnage that Manson had authored in his own life.  Famously, the film’s screenwriter, Kenneth Tynan, challenged Polanski about the amount of blood shown in this scene – to which the director retorted, “You should have seen my house last summer.”

 

One other cinematic Macbeth I know is the 1948 production directed by, and starring, Orson Welles.  I watched this on TV a long time ago and wasn’t impressed by its apparent staginess and melodramatics – by then I was in thrall to the Polanski version.  However, lately, I’ve watched a few parts of it on Youtube and revised my opinion of it somewhat.  Yes, it’s cheap.  Welles made it for Republic Pictures, a studio that normally specialised in low-budget westerns, had to shoot it on some of Republic’s leftover western sets and had only a 23-day shooting schedule.  But scenes like Act 3 Scene 4, where Banquo’s ghost shows up at the feast with ‘no speculation’ in his eyes and shaking his ‘gory locks’ at his killer, are surprisingly well-staged.  Though I suppose you’d expect that from Welles.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s9BUg7WG2Z4

 

There are problems, however.  Though he was only 33 at the time, Welles was already getting portly and resembled Falstaff more than Macbeth; and it doesn’t help that he appears in an eccentric costume that, he grumbled later, made him look like the Statue of Liberty.

 

(c) Republic Pictures / Mercury Productions

 

And then there are the accents – dear God.  Welles’s American cast dial the fake twee Scottish-ness up to 11 and roll their ‘r’s for minutes at a time.  Jeanette Nolan as Lady Macbeth gets shrill and hard to listen to and even Welles himself, during his more excitable moments, ends up sounding like Scottie in Star Trek.  Meanwhile, the witches’ accents are so piercing that they remind me of Molly Weir in those advertisements that she used to make for Flash, the household cleaning agent, back in the 1970s: “Flash cleans baths without scr-r-r-r-ratching.”

 

So all respect to Orson Welles and Justin Kurzel.  But at the end of the day, it’s Polanski’s Macbeth that’s the Macbeth for me.

 

Jon Finch: 1941 – 2012

 

I don’t want to turn this blog into a series of obituaries, especially after last month when I wrote about the recently departed Sir Patrick Moore and Gerry Anderson.  I was, however, saddened to hear last week about the passing of the excellent film and TV actor Jon Finch.  Finch, who hadn’t worked for seven years, had been living quietly in the English town of Hastings and his death in December seems to have gone undiscovered for a time.  Furthermore, word of his funeral wasn’t announced until this month.  For that reason, obituaries for him in the British media have been intermittent and patchy and I thought I’d write a few words here.

 

Finch began his career in television, went into films and ended up back in television.  For a couple of years in the early 1970s, while he was doing film-work, he had the opportunity to become massive, but that didn’t happen.  Finch, who valued his privacy and had a low opinion of the whole celebrity circus, may well have preferred it that way.

 

He began acting on television in 1964, appearing in ITV’s notoriously dire soap opera Crossroads.  In 1970, like many a British TV actor at the time, he got his break in movies thanks to Hammer Films – who were always looking for cheap acting talent to appear in their low-budget but cheerfully sensationalist horror movies.  He duly provided vampire-hunting support to Peter Cushing in Roy Ward Baker’s okay The Vampire Lovers and appeared too in Jimmy Sangster’s dreadful Horror of Frankenstein.  Then Roman Polanski hired him to play the title role in his version of Macbeth and Finch’s career trajectory suddenly swung upwards.

 

(c) Columbia Films 

 

Polanski’s take on Shakespeare’s Scottish play was bloody, dark and bleak – everything that a good production of Macbeth should be, in my opinion.  In this film, what works in favour of Finch as Macbeth, and of his co-star Francesca Annis as Lady Macbeth, is the fact that they’re both so young.  The audience therefore feels they have little power over their destiny.  Rather, they’re swept to their tragic ends by dark forces that are both political and supernatural.

 

Polanski’s Macbeth got an unsympathetic appraisal from many critics, who couldn’t see beyond the film’s high level of violence and who linked it with what Polanski had gone through in August 1969 – when his pregnant wife Sharon Tate and four others were slaughtered at his house in Beverly Hills by acolytes of hippie-cult nutcase Charles Manson.  New Yorker critic Pauline Kael even wondered if Polanski’s staging of the murder of Macduff’s family was an attempt to recreate the carnage that Manson had orchestrated.  In fact, the film’s screenwriter, celebrated theatre critic Kenneth Tynan, is reputed to have challenged Polanski about the amount of blood displayed in this scene, to which the director retorted, “You should have seen my house last summer.”

 

From Roman Polanski, Finch moved on to Alfred Hitchcock and he landed the lead role in 1972’s Frenzy.  Although Frenzy hardly represents Hitchcock at the peak of his artistry, it’s by far and away the best of the director’s last clutch of films, which include Torn Curtain, Topaz and Family Plot.  It also shows Hitchcock at his most disturbing.  The murder sequence involving Barbara Leigh-Hunt, who plays Finch’s ex-wife, is the most brutal thing he ever did, and the potato-truck ride (where serial strangler Barry Foster tries to retrieve an incriminating piece of evidence from a corpse he’d concealed earlier inside a huge sack of potatoes) is pretty gruelling too.

 

Playing an innocent man accused of and hunted down for Foster’s murders, Finch bravely refrains from making his character sympathetic.  Indeed, he’s something of a shit and has a violent streak, and for a period at the start of the film we think he really is the strangler.   (By the time it becomes clear that Foster is actually the culprit, Hitchcock – a master manipulator of his audience’s emotions – has presented him as a chirpy, likeable chap.  Thus, we find ourselves siding more with Foster than we do with Finch.)

 

(c) Universal Pictures

 

Having worked with two of the world’s greatest directors, Finch seemed destined for major fame and indeed he was soon offered the chance to replace Sean Connery in the James Bond series.  Finch, however, declined and the role went instead to the somewhat less invigorating Roger Moore.  (Around this time he also turned down the role of Aramis in Richard Lester’s The Three Musketeers, which would have seen him acting alongside another actor with a low opinion of movie stars and movie stardom, Oliver Reed.)

 

In fact, in 1973, Finch did play a vaguely James Bond-like character when he took the role of Jerry Cornelius in Robert Fuest’s The Final Programme, which was based on the first of the four Cornelius novels written by Michael Moorcock, set in a surreal, 1960s-esque and science-fiction-tinged world where the fabric of reality is definitely beginning to fray.  I’ve never seen The Final Programme, though from all accounts Fuest did a pretty cack-handed job of it.  In the stills, though, Finch at least looks the part of Moorcock’s enigmatic hipster-cum-secret-agent hero.  Moorcock himself disapproved of the film adaptation, although he liked Finch’s performance and paid tribute to him on his website / discussion forum Moorcock’s Miscellany the other day (http://www.multiverse.org/fora/showthread.php?t=27663).

 

Towards the end of the 1970s, Ridley Scott lined Finch up to appear in his ground-breaking sci-fi horror film Alien.  Finch was supposed to play Kane, a character who doesn’t last long in the movie’s script but is certainly pivotal to it.  He’s the unfortunate crewmember who goes exploring the mysterious crashed spaceship and ends up with an alien egg inside his chest.  Two days into filming, however, Finch became too ill to work – either from bronchitis or from complications caused by his recently-diagnosed diabetes, depending on which story you believe – and was replaced by John Hurt.  Thus, he missed appearing in the infamous ‘canteen’ scene where Kane expires and the alien makes its first appearance, one of the most (literally) explosive scenes in horror-movie history.

 

From there on, it was through his television work that Finch remained in the public consciousness.  In the late 1970s, he appeared in the BBC Television Shakespeare, a series featuring adaptations of all the Bard’s plays.  Though they were criticised for the conservative manner in which they were brought to the screen and for their general staginess, the adaptations certainly couldn’t be faulted for the top-notch acting they contained.  In Richard II, Finch played Henry Bolingbroke to Derek Jacobi’s Richard and John Gielgud’s John of Gaunt.  With Bolingbroke elevated to monarch, he then played the title role in the sequels Henry IV Part One and Part Two, with Anthony Quayle as a jovial, red-cheeked Falstaff and David Gwillim as Henry’s offspring, Prince Hal.  (In reality, Gwillim was only six years younger than Finch.)

 

Still picky about his roles, he passed on the opportunity to play Doyle in Brian Clements’ hugely popular espionage / action series The Professionals.  Ironically, the role eventually went to Martin Shaw, who’d played Banquo to Finch’s Macbeth.  On the other hand, out of loyalty to Hammer, he starred in the first episode of the studio’s 1980 anthology series The Hammer House of Horror.  And for a quarter century he gave guest turns in popular shows like The New Avengers, The Bill, Maigret, The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes and New Tricks.

 

Finch’s final appearance was a film one, in Ridley Scott’s 2005 crusades epic Kingdom of Heaven, so at least he got to work with that director nearly three decades after his gig in Alien fell through.  Thereafter, he kept a low profile in Hastings, in declining health but seen now and again in some of the town’s public bars.  I wonder if the regulars in those Hastings pubs were aware that old ‘Finchy’, as he was known, had once headlined films directed by Hitchcock and Polanski and had come within a whisker of being 007.