Francesca Annis and Jon Finch as the murderous Macbeth's in Polanski's dark Shakespearean adaptation
Director: Roman Polanski
Cast: Jon Finch (Macbeth), Francesca Annis (Lady Macbeth), Martin Shaw (Banquo), Terence Bayler (Macduff), John Stride (Ross), Nicholas Selby (King Duncan), Stephen Chase (Malcolm), Paul Shelley (Donalbain), Richard Pearson (Doctor), Diane Fletcher (Lady Macduff)
Roman Polanski is always going to be a controversial figure. If he wasn’t also a gifted film maker, his reputation would be even lower than it is. His life has been a parade of misfortunes and misdemeanours. Macbeth was filmed a few years after his wife, Sharon Tate, was brutally murdered by Charles Manson. Hard not to read something into the director’s decision to film Shakespeare’s most infamous murderer. Certainly it was hard for reviewers at the time to disconnect the two. Throw in the fact that the film was made by Playboy Productions’ short lived film-making arm (with Hugh Hefner as Executive Producer) and you’ve got a film ripe for a poor reputation.
However, Macbeth is actually a dynamic, well-filmed, surprisingly textually savvy production of this shortest and most intense of Shakespeare’s tragedies. While there is no doubt that this very much Polanski’s personal vision of Macbeth, it’s a fascinatingly dark, grim and horror-inflected production that really gets to grips with the darkness at the play’s heart – and also with the slightly empty, little-boy-lost quality in Macbeth himself (until then a character seen on screen largely as the brooding thane, laid low by his evil wife).
Polanski’s Macbeth takes place in a world where violence is second nature, life is cheap and grim slaughter is around every corner. One of the first acts we see is a soldier checking bodies on the battlefield. Finding a wounded soldier, he breaks his spine with two sickening blows from a flail. That’s just a precursor for the violent mood that will follow. Mangled bodies and bleeding corpses constantly appear, from Duncan’s guards to the twisted corpses of the Macduff children. Even when relaxing at the court, the Macbeths set up a bear baiting (kept off-screen) – the bear’s corpse (along with a few dogs) is later dragged through the palace corridors, leaving a trail of blood.
Polanski’s Scotland is a savage, medieval, uncivilised place. Macbeth’s castle is a more like an elaborate farm, with wooden huts and mud-stained floors, than a mighty fortress. Every character looks swarthy, run-down and dirty. Colour has been drained out of the film in favour of muted greys and browns. There is precious little hope here, just a terrible onslaught of violence and murder that never seems to stop.
The brutality is constant, and Macbeth is up to his arms in it. Even the murder of Duncan doesn’t pass off without a hitch – the King awakens and has to be dispatched with panicked desperation. Banquo is finished off with a sickening axe thud in the back, his body dropping lifelessly into a stream. Even Macbeth’s faithful factotum Seyton is brutally lynched while trying to prevent his soldiers from deserting Dunsinane. The assault on the Macduff family is hideous in its fierceness: the house is burnt down, the servants (and its implied Lady Macduff) raped, while the children are brutally murdered (thankfully off-screen in most cases). It’s a harrowing slaughter that brings to mind World War II atrocities – and of course Polanski’s own recent tragedy.
In this world, Macbeth is intriguingly presented as far less of a noble poetic hero than audiences at the time would have expected. Jon Finch’s Thane is low-key and lost, a puppet in the events happening around him. He’s almost like a slightly at-sea kid, who’s stumbled into power and has no idea what to do with it. His poetic soul is revealed as flashes of inspiration in an otherwise empty man. With many of the speeches internalised in voice-over, Macbeth’s sound and fury is deliberately toned down – by the end he seems weary and finished in a way few other Macbeths feel. His isolation throughout the play is complete – he’s incapable of relating to other people.
Similarly, Francesca Annis presents a fresher view of Lady Macbeth than a cartoon villain. While clearly still alluring (there was much controversial, Playboy-related, buzz to her famous naked sleepwalking scene) she’s equally as adrift as Macbeth is, totally unprepared for the psychological impact of murder. Excited and perhaps even a bit turned on by power, she falls apart as the impact of her actions grabs hold – it seems to be happening from the very start, her swooning when seeing the corpses of Duncan’s guards seems genuine rather than forced. Polanski even places her suicide on screen – her despairing leap accompanied by screams of terror from her waiting women.
In this grim world, there is a paganish, primitive feeling. Macbeth is crowned in a strange ceremony that involves him standing bare foot on the stone of scone. The Thane of Cawdor is executed by being hung by a metal chain (he defiantly jumps from the battlements rather than being pushed) while the court stares on. The witches are a crazed harem of naked women of all ages, engaged in bizarre, sadistic ceremonies in a secret subterranean den. The opening shot of the film uses a bright, bleached yellow sun that seems to stretch over a desolate coast-line, where the witches are burying a human hand clutching a dagger. Macbeth's visions are a series of surreal and disturbing images, while Banquo's ghost is an increasingly bloody and terrifying image as the scene progresses. There is a sense of strange powers hanging over everything.
And maybe that power is fate. This is also a fatalistic film, which runs with the theory that Shakespeare’s tragedies are almost circular in nature (very much inspired by Polish writer Jan Kott in his excellent book Shakespeare: Our Contemporary) with fate as a machine that traps people into an endless cycle of repetition. This feeling runs throughout Macbeth’s increasingly fatalistic disengagement with the world – the (excellent) sword fights at the end even see him fight with a certainty in advance of the results. The cyclical nature of this world is hammered home at the end, as Donalbain sneaks away from the celebrations of Malcolm’s crowning to consult with the witches in their hovel – hold onto your horses, the cycle is all set to begin again.
The film is also creative in its use of Shakespeare, in particular in its expansion of the character of Ross. Polanski and his co-screenwriter, famed theatre critic Ken Tynan, again followed Kott’s theories by repositioning Ross as the ultimate political opportunist. Helped by John Stride’s expressive performance, Ross is a constant figure of vileness, allying himself eagerly with whoever is on the rise. Ross assists in the murder of Banquo, murders the murderers and aids the destruction of the Macduff family. Overlooked for a chain of office in favour of Seyton, he swiftly reverses his stance and flies to Malcolm (much to Macbeth’s later fury) and then loudly leads the cheers for Malcolm’s crowning. It’s a neat side story, done with camera asides and no dialogue changes, but it adds a lot of interest to the film.
Macbeth ends with a gruelling beheading of Macbeth – and stylish angles gives the impression that we are experiencing Macbeth’s final moments of consciousness as his head is passed around Malcolm’s soldiers. It’s a neat way to end a violent and dark production of the play, shot through with Polanski’s personal awareness of the darkness of the human soul. The film sometimes loses its pace a little bit, and most of the performances leave very little impression - there is a reason why virtually no one in this film had a really established film career. Even the language of Shakespeare isn’t central here: it’s the experience of a brutal, dark and grim world that matters. It’s the images and visuals that stand out. It’s very much Polanski’s Macbeth.