With the help of his wife, a Scottish lord murders his king and ascends to the throne, only to be driven mad by his guilt.
“The Tragedy of Macbeth” might be my favorite of Shakespeare’s plays (between “Macbeth”, “Hamlet”, and “Julius Caesar”); there’s murder, intrigue, madness, and, in my opinion, some of the bard’s best lines (“Out, out brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow…” “I dare do all that become a man; who dares do more is none”). What’s not to love?
This film review is not going to be a review of the Bard’s tale of Macbeth; that would be silly. In my opinion, the hundreds of years of history that separate us from Shakespeare work as their own testament for his work; his stories have lasted this long because they are some of the best and most influential ever told (that’s not hyperbole, that’s just the truth). As a story, Macbeth is wonderful; I will be focusing on what makes this specific retelling of the story unique and worth watching.
I would venture to say that Macbeth is one of frequently adapted of the Bard’s tales as well. On IMDb, there’s an unfathomable number of films just under the title of ‘Macbeth’; that’s not counting all of the pseudo adaptations like Kurosawa’s “Throne of Blood”. While I can’t say that I am an expert in Shakespearean films (or literature for that matter), I can say I’ve seen my fair share, and of the lot, this is easily one of the better ones.
“Stars, hide your fires; let not light see my black and deep desires.”
After winning a noble victory, a Scottish warlord named Macbeth (Jon Finch, “Frenzy”) hears a prophecy from a trio of witches, telling him that he will one day be king of Scotland. With the help of Lady Macbeth (Francesca Annis, “Dune (1984)”), Macbeth murders King Duncan (Nicholas Selby, “The Madness of King George”) and seizes the throne for himself. But after sitting upon the throne for a short while, guilt begins to eat away at both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, and Macbeth suspects that his old friend Banquo (Martin Shaw) has betrayed him, while the rightful heir named Malcolm (Stephan Chase, “Maleficent”) makes a vie for the throne.
The thing that makes this film different from any other versions of “Macbeth” is its director, Roman Polanski (“Rosemary’s Baby”, “The Tenant”). There’s a large controversy surrounding Polanski due to his involvement with Samantha Geimer in 1977, but I’m not going to talk about that here. I’ve already discussed that scandal and my thoughts on Polanski as an artist at length in some of my other reviews, so if you’d like to hear my thoughts on that, see my review for “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired”.
Anyways; Polanski’s directing. I feel like many Shakespeare adaptations I’ve seen suffer from feeling too much like a play. One of the major problems that modern directors face when adapting Shakespeare is getting audiences to adjust to that style of storytelling on screen. It feels unnatural when a character stands on screen and monologues endlessly about their inner fears and desires, particularly when they’re in a room with dozens of people. Bibliophiles like myself won’t have a problem connecting to these kinds of stories, but getting someone whom doesn’t care at all about Shakespeare to find interest in a story like this is difficult, but I think Polanski does a remarkable job.
For one thing, Polanski knows how to grab your attention and keep it. Even from the opening scene with the witches performing their spells, we get a sense of how dark and ominous this version of “Macbeth” will be. The spell requires a severed hand, and Polanski is sure not to shy away from the gorier bits. The scene following that too bodes of how violent and hopeless the world we’re entering is; it depicts a long line of men returning from battle. In the foreground of the shot, a man tries to pull the boots from a wounded man, but when the wounded man struggles, the would-be-thief wails on the dying man with a flail; it’s brutal but effective. All of the violence in this film is like that: shocking, vibrantly bloody, disturbing. It works as a constant, bloody reminder for just how dirty the deeds Macbeth and his wife have committed really are.
Polanski is also incredibly skilled at bringing the subtext forward to a more noticeable light. As we, the viewers, aren’t used to hearing Shakespearean dialect in day to day life, there can often be a little bit of a disconnect in picking up on all of the nuances of certain lines. Polanski helps to being forth more of the nuanced parts of Shakespeare’s dialogue by giving the viewers hints at what Macbeth or the others might be talking about. There are also quite a few cool dream/madness sequences that worked remarkably well. Some of the sequences were quite disturbing and reminded me of the dream sequences in Polanski’s earlier work, “Repulsion”; and others gave me the impression of some of the dream sequences in Bergman’s “Wild Strawberries”. The techniques Polanski used in these scenes kept me constantly engaged.
As far as acting goes, I thought everyone did a fine job. I thought Jon Finch easily gave the best performance as Macbeth, though Francesca Annis was fine as Lady Macbeth too. If I’m being honest, I thought Finch’s performance outshone many Shakespearean screen performances, though I do have to say that I actually preferred Michael Fassbender’s version of Macbeth’s madness to Finch’s.
As far as the look of this film, this might be one of Polanski’s most beautiful. It looks just as gorgeous as “Tess” and “The Pianist”, and many of the wider exterior shots reminded me of Stanley Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon”. It’s simply a joy to behold, and the new Criterion 4K transfer is practically immaculate.
This is a fantastic version of Macbeth, one that I’m thrilled I finally got around to seeing. I do think that, as with all Shakespeare films, the play to film adjustment-curve takes a minute of getting used to, but I also think Polanski executes it with more deftness than most. While I can’t say this is my favorite Polanski film, I can say that it is crafted with just as much precision as he always brings to his movies.
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