The Bard’s tale of the ambitious Scottish lord who with his wife conspire to take the throne of Scotland by hook or crook has always made for great cinema. It’s one of the more violent and action-packed of Shakespeare plays and through the eye of Roman Polanski, at the peak of his abilities, turns the story into a ruthless and bloody parable of ambition - a film even more resonant with the Charles Manson tragedy only a couple years behind this production.
The Tragedy of Macbeth (1971) dir. Roman Polanski
Starring: Jon Finch, Francesca Annis, Martin Shaw
By Alan Bacchus
As Macbeth Jon Finch is an especially sour and brooding doomed-hero. In the opening scenes his sad eyes and sulking face help exaggerate the character’s arc from wayward war hero of the land to despotic paranoid tyrant by the end.
As written by written by Polanski and Kenneth Tynan, Macbeth’s soliloquies are written as voiceover, thus absolving the director of the unnaturalness which can be associated those stagey moments. The result is an even more haunting experience, as Macbeth’s inner thoughts or murder and paranoia bridge over a number of delirious and psychedelic dream/fantasy sequences.
As expected, Polanski’s film is a breathtaking beauty. Much of the exteriors shot in glorious magic hour bask the film in a hypnotizing glow which looks stunning on the top notch Criterion Blu-Ray. In the moments of Macbeth’s purge of terror Polanski does not spare the audience the horrific sight of blood and maimed body parts. In particular Lady MacDuff and her family’s fate is given an especially brutal end, a massacre of MacDuff’s entire castle, but seen only as aftermath through the eyes of knights who discover them.
While it would be impossible to best Akira Kurosawa’s glorious death-by-a-hundred-arrows in the finale of his version of Macbeth, Throne of Blood, Polanski choreograph’s his final battle is a lengthy and impressive sword fight through the foyer of his castle in front of the army which seiged him. There’s no swashbuckling in this battle; the sloppy and messy swordplay give us a hint of how brutal medieval times must have been. Admittedly the under-cranked camera speed designed to create a faster fight doesn’t survive well these years, same with the wonky anamorphic lenses which does not hold focus as well as lenses today. Now, it’s part of the character of the film, all other elements linger magnificently over time.
The Tragedy of Macbeth is available on Blu-Ray from the Criterion Collection