Roman Polanski’s 1971 film of Macbeth is a bleak and bloody adaptation of Shakespeare’s classic tragedy. The plot centres on the titular character’s quest for power in medieval Scotland, and his eventual decline into madness as its terrible cost. The story is strewn with murder, as Macbeth sets about dispatching all those in the way of his ascent to the throne and those he suspects of betrayal. This is set in motion by an encounter with three witches in the film’s first post-title scene. Macbeth (Jon Finch) with his friend and ally Banquo (Martin Shaw), are told a prophesy wherein Macbeth becomes king, only to be overthrown eventually by Banquo’s descendants.
Already furious that King Duncan has given the title of Prince of Northumberland to his son Malcolm, Macbeth with the aid of his wife (Francesca Annis) plot and carry out the murder of the king, Lady Macbeth having drugged his bodyguards (at whose feet blame for the regicide initially falls). Paranoid and mad with a lust for power, Macbeth (now king) then orders the assassination of Banquo and his son Fleance, since he suspects Banquo knows who really killed Duncan and also because he fears the witches’ prophesy about Banquo’s descendants usurping his place on the throne. After the murder is carried out, there follows a terrifying banquet scene in which Macbeth – and he alone - sees his old friend’s ghost. The proverbial ‘ghost at the feast’ approaches the terrified king, arms outstretched like a zombie, blood pouring from ever-more open wounds (for which Tom Smith’s ghoulish makeup effects deserve a mention). It’s this famous plot event which marks Macbeth’s steep decline into madness.
The violence is at times genuinely shocking, especially given the time at which the film was made and also that Shakespearian cinema adaptations had (until this point) been comparatively reticent in their depictions of violence. Another way in which the film is markedly different to many other adaptations of the play, is that Polanski purposefully chose to work with younger actors than had often been the case for the principle roles. This was due to Polanski’s contention that historical figures of the period were often in their 20s and 30s when they achieved the things to which they owed their fame, so it seemed only fitting that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth in particular were cast younger than was traditional.
Throughout the film the atmosphere is thick with a sense of foreboding and the score, provided by English avant-garde ensemble The Third Ear Band, adds considerably to this. It blends dissonant droning strings and bagpipes with more purely period-style music and occasionally even an electric guitar is heard, which although somewhat jarring contextually, works well.
The late Jon Finch’s performance in the titular role is excellent. His face becomes awash with twitchy paranoia and murderous intent as the body count grows, yet he delivers the verse with admirable clarity and his performance never veers into ham, as it so easily could with all the potential for overacting that the role provides. Equally worthy of praise is Francesca Annis’s Lady Macbeth; all doe-eyed with fear at one moment and mad with bloody, calculated revenge the next. Wilfred Shingleton’s set designs are lavishly arranged and often quite enormous, especially given the comparatively meagre budget (a reported £1.5m which eventually rose to £2m), and Scotland’s grand Bamburgh Castle makes for a suitably imposing Dunsinane. Although much use seems to have been made of natural light, many of the interior scenes are inventively and colourfully lit; most predominantly with reds and blues. An interesting directorial touch worth noting here is a narrative change; the play originally ends after Macbeth is beheaded and Duncan’s son Malcolm takes the throne. In the film however, there is a chilling epilogue where Duncan’s other son Donalbain goes to visit the witches and we are to assume that the whole gruesome cyclical prophesy must play out again.
The scene in which Polanski’s directorial flair really lets loose though, is when Macbeth visits the coven of naked witches and imbibes a potion from their cauldron. He sees his terrible fate laid out for him in hallucinogenic details while starring into his reflection, through all manner of artistic camera trickery and surrealistic flourishes. It’s a brilliantly realised scene and one in which Polanski really shows what he brings artistically to the table.
The sound is presented in 3.0 surround. Thankfully for such dialogue-heavy material, all of the films dialogue is clearly audible, and neither the sound design nor intermittent score get in the way of this.
The film is presented in a crisp new 4k restoration, approved by Polanski himself. The picture (in 2.35:1 aspect ratio) is astonishingly sharp throughout most of the film, most noticeably in the many impressive shots of outdoor locations but equally during scenes where the camera lingers on the protagonists’ faces; every crease and hair seems to be visible. The colours are deep and rich, and overall the video quality is exemplary.
Criterion have excelled themselves with the extras on offer on this Blu-ray release. They include;
- Toil & Trouble; Making Macbeth; This hour-long documentary, made in 2014, gives a detailed account of the films genesis and the various troubles of its production (and the controversies that the film faced after its release). There are extensive interviews with Polanski, Francesca Annis, Martin Shaw, producer Andrew Braunsberg and various other cast and crew, in which a number of illuminating and sometimes amusing anecdotes are told. Perhaps most interesting here is the detail about the financing of the project, as the film was the first feature financed by Hugh Hefner’s newly founded Playboy Productions. The documentary goes into detail about how the association of such highbrow material (Shakespeare as directed by a celebrated European auteur) with such an unlikely partner in Playboy, caused the project a degree of negative publicity in America before it even opened. Behind the scenes photos of medieval flags bearing the playboy bunny logo are, at the very least, an unusual sight (though needless to say they don’t feature in the actual film).
Polanski also recalls the controversy regarding the amount of bloody violence in his film, but states that since the play itself is ‘steeped in blood’, he saw no reason why the violence should be watered down and made palatable for his screen adaptation.
- Polanski Meets Macbeth; A 47-minute documentary consisting entirely of behind the scenes footage of Polanski and the crew at work. There are short interviews with all sorts of crew members, and the footage gives an interesting insight into some of the ways in which Polanski made the most out of the films modest budget (including using hundreds of extras with ‘cardboard cut-outs’ to give the impression of an army of thousands for the siege on Dunsinane).
-Dick Cavett & Kenneth Tyson ; A segment from Dick Cavett’s talk show in which he discusses the project with theatre critic and co-screenwriter Kenneth Tyson.
- Aquarius: ‘Two Macbeths’ ; A segment from TV show Aquarius in which Polanski and theatre director Peter Coe discuss their prospective productions of the play.
- Original theatrical trailer.