Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 36, Number 19. 2nd August 1973
It is with a rueful sigh that I say two genuinely engaging films opened in Wellington last week. It is a long time since we saw the quality to be found in Polanski's "MacBcth" and "The Ruling Class", and it may be a long time before we see it again. Nonetheless it is a case of 'sport while we may', and past regrets should not cloud the appreciation of two entertaining and enterprising features.
"MacBcth" has the stamp of commercial entertainment emblazoned on every frame. It comes from Playboy Productions, is the labour of the present No. I directing celebrity, Roman Polanski, and features the fruits of the mind of that notorious entertainment liberal, Kenneth Tynan (perpetrator of 'Oh Calcutta'). But despite the weight of such resourceful dabbles in chic, "MacBcth" is not candy gloss with Hammer horror overtones. Those who go in the hope of seeing gothicism on the rampage will be disappointed: there are no swirling mists creeping down cobwebbed corridors to charnel vauls, but, instead, pleanty of clean air and April showers. This is not to say that Polanski's inimitable style is submerged; it is, if anything, in close rein and still impossible to miss. The groupings are formal, the shots are long in terms of both depth and time, and the pace is carefully measured, as in all his films.
As an interpretation of "MacBcth ", Polanski is perhaps, disappointingly traditional. The usurpers role is clothed in much predictable psychological bric-a-brac, and the other parts are played strictly as they read — in spite of the eccentricities thrust onto an unusually highly strung Lady MacBeth and a limping Donaldbain. Even the witches are played down (no doubt Polanski's desire to escape charges of self indulgence), and there seems no attempt to get the tragedy onto a cosmic footing. The popular interpretation of current academic criticism — MacBcth as the victim of a cruel and implacable fate — is neglected altogether; instead the play retains an individual and self-contained atmosphere, its tenor being brought into line with kindred Jacobean exercises like Middleton's "The Changeling". This domestication of the play stems, as much as anything, from the low key acting performances — demanded, admittedly, by the youthful appearance of the protagonists — especially that of Jon Finch in the title role. Only Francesca Annis (Lady MacBcth) and Martin Shaw (Banquo) seem to act and deliver the lines (for the rest if is a case of one or the other).
However, Polanski manages to disguise these shortcomings with the visual dexterity for which he is renowned. The text has been greatly deleted, the material removed being that which lends itself to visual representation, and consequently the film has a visual richness to compensate for the verbal austerity. For this — coming to grips with cinematic Shakespeare — Polanski deserves a great deal of praise, more than a Zefferelli who weighs the text down with an excess of pretty but unnecessary choreography. It is a pleasure to see and hear Shakespeare and not be just the recipient of an illustrated text. Gil Taylor provides the splendid camerawork to catch the colour of Polanski's inventiveness, and rounds off a pleasant attempt to marry entertainment with art. Someone else should try to do the same.
'The Ruling Class", in spite of its title, is as far from a tragedy on the rheme of power as can be imagined. Besides being tragical historical—cosmical —pastoral (as Polonus would have it) the film is also political, sociological, psychological, fantastical and indefinable. It is a shaggy monstrosity, brilliant and dreadful by turns, easy to assess in terms of its component parts, nearly impossible to assess as a coherent whole. But its virtues are unmistakeable.
'The story' runs roughly thus. The 13th Earl of Gumey hangs himself by mistake while re-enacting a glorious moment of British martydom. He leaves his title to his son Jack, his money to his servant. From the point of view of the family, nothing could have been worse: Jack is an advanced paranoic with delusions of grandeur, the servant is a Trot. Both accept the bequest, and Jack, who looks upon himself as 'the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost and the essential unity etc' takes up residence on a cross in the drawing room.
An heir is the only remedy; and Jack's chosen one, the Lady of the Camellias is duly found in a local stripper. A courtship (including some superb mud-slinging at Ken Russell) ensues. Jack Mimes, a son is born. AH looks well but for the intervention of a psychiatrist who rids Jack of his delusion of grandeur and substitutes persecution mania instead. Jack seems normal enough but in truth he is homicidal and as desperately reactionary as his peers.... and so Jack and the stripper get together as Jack the Ripper and....
That's the story: what of the style? Besides burlesqueing every mode of English cinema from Joseph Losey to 'Dracula Spits Blood Again', it is a maze of symbols allusions (literary and biblical), parables and allegories. Some are extraordinarily funny, some go splat like a wet hamburger. As for the meaning of this melange — a fable about the ruling classes and their relative harmlessness if left alone, their cornered beast menance if persecuted into normalcy, I imagine. But the meaning seems subsidiary to the individual details which are as alarming as they are overwhelming.
One must note a magnificent performance from Arthur Lowe as Tuck or Konstantin Vladimir Illich (allusion to 'Point-Counter-Point') Lenin as he is known on the party files. It is hard to imagine a better rendition of the obsequious but comic English domestic. Alistair Sim and James Villiers make a fine fist of the family. Peter OToole plays very well in a part that is so loaded in the actor's favour he cannot fail, and therefore cannot escape doint just that. Any other actor, I suggest, would find the part of Jack equally thankless. They are all admirably supported by a wealth of excellent English television actors and Harry Andrews as the short-lived 13th earl. Peter Barnes wrote the screenplay from his own stage drama, and Peter Medak directed.
By Jeremy Littlejohn