Book Review:

Macbeth, by Rebekah Owens

Reviewed by Andrew Tumminia

Review of Rebekah Owens's Macbeth, Auteur Publishing (Devil's Advocates), 2017.

Rebekah Owens’s slim volume on Roman Polanski’s Macbeth [1971] is itself haunted, but its ghost belongs neither to Banquo nor even to Shakespeare. It belongs instead to a living man—the film’s director, Roman Polanski, himself. Allegations of his monstrous transgressions loom, spectral and unaddressed, over the book’s ninety-two pages. Owens is a skilled close reader, trained in the study of Shakespeare, whose knowledge of horror is deep. The book’s great strength lies in Owens’s ability to nestle perceptive close readings in lessons about more general horror conventions. As readers benefit from Owens’ piercing analysis, they know there’s a ghost; she ignores it.

Owens sees evil in the film as both recursive and all-too human; in this, she writes, the film anticipates the near future of horror during the 1970s. She takes the first step along this trajectory in the second chapter—after an introduction addressing the film’s Shakespearean context and a first chapter devoted to Polanski’s credentials as a horror director—which treats the most arresting element of Polanski’s Macbeth, its violence. While Owens concedes that “it could be argued that the bloodletting in Macbeth is a little excessive” (32), she maintains that the violence is not an end in itself, but a typical horror technique intended “to allow the watching audience to experience the terror for themselves” (40). The third chapter deflates the presence of the supernatural in Polanski’s Macbeth, puffing up the human desire for power in its place, which implicates the viewers in “Macbeth’s machinations” (65). The fourth chapter relocates evil, now dislodged from the supernatural, in the human, as Owens moves on from Macbeth to lesser-though-still-interestingly-treated (by both the film and Owens’s book) Ross and Malcolm. The fifth chapter offers unexpected and compelling, though sometimes strained, comparisons between Macbeth and two horror staples that Owens believes Polanski’s Shakespeare adaptation presages, The Wicker Man (1973) and Halloween (1978). The conclusion to Owens’s discussion of the film centers on recursivity, finding much in Polanski’s significant revision of the play’s ending, which finds the film’s Donalbain making his own visit to the weird sisters.

Close up, the book is at its best. Owens progresses confidently through her close readings and moves comfortably in and out of horror allusions. She deftly reads the visual rhetoric of the cinematic text, uncovering and communicating meaning that a casual viewer of the film might miss. For instance, she examines the film’s blurred lines separating interiors and exteriors: “Even when indoors, the outside is always present” (48). She cycles through examples of outdoor intrusion into interior space and connects everything to a larger point conveyed by the film: “the man-made environment does not represent stability” (48). Her indoor/outdoor discussion reaches helpfully beyond the film to the medium itself, which “allows for the use of the landscape and its vastness to underscore the prevailing idea that nature still has primacy over human endeavor” (49). Owens gives the reader a useful tool by rendering Polanski’s techniques accessible, legible, and transferable. She accomplishes something similar through her focus on the film’s ever-present background figure, Ross. While the film’s vast landscapes and rough surfaces are hard to miss, its treatment of Ross, though hardly subtle, allows Owens to discuss the smaller ways the film draws attention to him. The film doesn’t give him more lines, yet it manages to give him more presence. By finding much in details, Owens encourages her readers to be better viewers of film.

From a few steps back, however, the book’s direction is murkier. Owens dismisses the tendency of early critics to link the film’s gore to Polanski’s biography, specifically the Nazi atrocities he witnessed and the slaughter of Sharon Tate and his unborn child by the Manson Family. She acknowledges that Polanski’s “real-life horrors may have affected [his] own response to Shakespeare’s play,” but, she continues, “it should not be allowed to overpower a reading of the film to its detriment” (32). Would Owens argue differently if she thought Polanski’s biography enhanced appreciation of the movie? As for Polanski’s alleged sexual transgressions, which postdate the film, Owens ignores them, coming no closer than a possible oblique reference: “It is necessary to look past aspects of Polanski’s biography and see the film in the light of his skills as a director of horror” (32). Owens, an expert, owes her audience more balance.

Ultimately, the book seems written to satisfy, not the publisher’s stated mission for the “widest audience possible,” but a gatekeeper of the horror genre, one who has invested years of time and care into the genre, one with thorough knowledge of horror, one with an unquestioning reverence for the seminal figures of the genre and one with a willingness to quibble over distinctions only an expert notices. (Would anyone else seriously object to categorizing Rosemary’s Baby as a horror film and not strictly as a psychological thriller? And of those, who would already have objected to talking about Shakespeare in the context of horror?) Owens’s ideal audience seems to share the exact same areas of expertise and standards that Owens exhibits as a critic. Nevertheless, she has much to teach those readers who do not.

-25 May 2019