Following the success of Rosemary’s Baby in 1968, and prior to what is arguably still his greatest film, Chinatown (1974), Roman Polanski made three curious filmmaking choices. One was the international coproduction and rarely discussed What? (1972), one was the racing documentary Weekend of a Champion (1972), and the third, which actually came before these two, was Macbeth (1971). It is obviously not that a Shakespearean adaptation in itself is unusual, but rather that it so seemingly diverted from the films that were garnering the young Polanski his worldwide acclaim: taut thrillers like The Knife in the Water (1962), Repulsion (1965), Cul-De-Sac (1966), and Rosemary’s Baby. Yet in Macbeth, there are a number of characteristic Polanski touches — in story and style — harkening back to these previous works and in many ways pointing toward those to come.
Don’t be fooled by the Playboy Production/Hugh M. Hefner as executive producer credits, this is no Penthouse Caligula (1979). This is a somber, sorrowful, generally faithful, and visually satisfying version of one of Shakespeare’s most cinematic works. It’s probably unnecessary to recount the entire plot of such a well-known tale, but suffice it to say, working with some truly gifted collaborators (production designer Wilfred Shingleton and cinematographer Gil Taylor especially), Polanski does great justice to this story of blind ambition, brutal murder, and erratic madness. When Macbeth (Jon Finch) first has the seeds of a lofty reign planted in his mind by the three weird sisters, his transformation from innocent curiosity at their declaration to the resolute drive that preoccupies his soul is a slow but steady development. Exacerbated by the devious Lady Macbeth (Francesca Annis), Macbeth begins to contemplate how to achieve the predicted role of King, who stands in his way, and who will obediently follow.
As Finch does an exceptional job conveying the brooding Macbeth, in all of his anguish and indecision, Annis is superb as his shockingly two-faced wife, who abandons her conniving ways, puts on her required mask of respectability, and reverts back again with frightening ease. Though Finch does a good deal to show Macbeth’s doubt, it soon becomes clear that there is indeed no doubt whatsoever. His path is clear; he is to give in to his “vaulting ambition,” he is to, as Lady Macbeth suggests, “look like the innocent flower but be the serpent under it.” The first step is to kill King Duncan (Nicholas Selby).
Once the deed is done, an unceasing snowball of violence begins to roll, as Macbeth grows anxious and paranoid and he and Lady Macbeth both begin to mentally unravel. While Lennox speaks of “strange screams of death” the unruly night of Duncan’s murder, nothing could prepare the region for the conspiratorial turmoil that follows. Macbeth aggressively does all he deems necessary to secure his position, wiping out any and all potential adversaries, not the least of which is friend and fellow general Banquo (Martin Shaw).
Even before he goes on the warpath to his own destruction, Macbeth is shown to be prone to visions, seeing the dagger that directs him to enact Duncan’s demise, but as he descends into grief-stricken and murderous madness, his visions intensify. Haunted by Banquo’s death, he falls victim to delirious dream states of surreal panic. And as his breakdown progresses, he becomes more and more insular and suspicious, seeking refuge within the confines of his castle. In these sequences, we see prominent elements from many of Polanski’s finest films. The depiction of one’s progressive mental instability, intensified by paranoia and a sense of claustrophobia, revealed in Macbeth’s delirium and accompany delusions, and in the restrictive setting. Macbeth’s isolated castle is itself perched high on narrow mountaintop and within that, Polanski stages the drama to be even more withdrawn and visually tightening.
In contrast to this, there is the beautifully melancholic exterior photography, its lushness and natural splendor a precursor to Polanski’s Tess (1979). The windswept English location, shot under the effect of perpetual dampness and cloud cover, is scenery that strongly reflects the foreboding tragedy that unfolds. What the setting lacks in bold vibrancy, it makes up for with rich texture and stunning and subtle natural light, both of which become markedly apparent in the newly released Criterion Collection Blu-ray. If the exteriors point toward Polanski’s own later work, inside the castle walls, the interior design is reminiscent of Roberto Rossellini’s historical pictures from the late 1960s and early ’70s. In films like The Rise of Louis XIV (1966) or Blaise Pascal (1972), Rossellini similarly depicted largely unglamorous time periods in a realistic fashion, with acute attention to detail. A key difference here though, is that Polanski imbues the stark reality of his recreation with more expressive camera placement, movement, and editing.
The brutality of Polanski’s Macbeth is commonly remarked upon, and while there are occasionally quite graphic moments, the bloodshed isn’t that extraordinary, certainly not by 2014 standards. And even if it were, bearing in mind the tragic events of Polanski’s personal life just two years prior, it should come as no surprise that violence weighed heavy on the filmmaker and undoubtedly was in need of an outlet. This much of the film’s backstory is largely glossed over in the Criterion disc’s bonus features, which is perhaps for the better, as the Tate-LaBianca murders at the behest of Charles Manson are an unwieldy topic, one that can (and did) easily lead to distraction from Macbeth itself.
What is given considerable attention in these additions is a comprehensive account of the film’s tumultuous making (over budget, Polanski rumored for replacement) and its generally poor critical and commercial reception and meager release (the connotations of the Playboy name somewhat of a hindrance for “serious” filmgoers). There were, however, many positives, and that much of the production is discussed in a Dick Cavett interview with coscreenwriter Kenneth Tynan and in “Two Macbeths,” a 1972 TV episode with Polanski and theater director Peter Coe. The Polanski Meets Macbeth documentary contains some fascinating and revealing behind the scenes footage, including of the superbly realized movement of Birnam Wood. And Toil and Trouble: Making “Macbeth,” a documentary featuring interviews with Polanski, producer Andrew Braunsberg, assistant executive producer Victor Lownes, and Annis and Shaw, neatly covers the film’s gestation from beginning to end.
Though I’m by no means a Shakespeare film aficionado (or even a big fan), on the whole, Martin Shaw’s declaration in this latter documentary is reasonable. Given Macbeth’s visual accomplishments, the first-rate performances from all players, the excellent use of setting, and the overall production design, it very well may be the “best Shakespeare film that’s ever been made.”