on 17 February 2006
When we think of screen Shakespeare, as in the theatre, we generally refer to the lead role... Brannagh's 'Henry V', or Gibson's 'Hamlet'. Despite the fact that I cannot think of an actor or actress in this production, from the King to the gate-keeper, who does not succeed admirably, yet this will always be Polanski's 'Macbeth'. The style and power of the direction are the dominant impression of this piece.
Brutally medieval in portrayal and attitude, this is a grim telling of a grim tale which captivated me entirely. At once theatrical, stunningly visual and historically believable, Polanski for me has not only done full justice to the language and drama of the work but has presented the rugged, uncertain, internecene way of life of the period so starkly that the devices of the play are seen in a truly medieval light... this production has been described as vicious, brutal, visceral... well, it is, but above all I find it credible. I think, to date, that I cannot identify a better screen production of a Shakespeare work.
If anyone still believes that The Bard does not translate to the modern age, this film should be prescribed!
on 7 July 2008
Picture this: Circa 1975, A class of 32 bored, inner city school, O level English kids, dragged off to an arts cinema to see a showing of Polanski's Macbeth. We settled down for a boring couple of hours messing about and talking. Five minutes into the film, you could have heard a pin drop. We were hooked.
We went from complete disinterest, to shakespeare fans in one afternoon. I will always be grateful to that young english teacher (whatever her name was?) for igniting a lifelong interest in literature. If our Headmaster/parents had known what we were going to see, I'm sure the trip would never have happened! But the quality of acting was such, that suddenly we all knew and understood olde worlde english, something which carried on through other plays we studied. We were lucky enough to have our study of Romeo & Juliet underpinned with another of Polanski's films- exam results were good that year!
Polanski is surprisingly sensitive in filming novels(Tess,Rosemary's Baby,Oliver Twist The Ghost);here he is, turning Shakespeare's drama Macbeth, into Polanski's Macbeth.Like a medieval sequel to Rosemary's Baby,it's filled with necromancy,murder,evil and witchcraft.Dark,dank,muddy and dangerous,filmed in appropriate locations(shot in Wales and Northumberland).The vision of a pagan,nihilistic universe full of death, revenge,superstition and prophecy.The mad ambition of Macbeth, galvanised by the witches and Lady Macbeth,sets him on his vaunting path from warrior virtue, as the Thane of Cawdor, to the murderer of Duncan, to become king.Polanski somehow guts the play(assisted by Tynan) of rhetoric(soliloquies filmed as thoughts),films an imagined blade as a real one,earths the verbal gymnastics in a kinetic narrative,so that pacing,momentum of set-pieces,rich visualization,fluent editing,create an atmosphere of dark nightmare and momentous terror.Gory,bloody,brutish and scary,this primeval world leaves nothing to the imagination,limbs lopped off,decapitations,the murder of McDuff's wife and children in their home,the ripping of babies from wombs is visualised,Banquo's ghost looks freshly murdered,Duncan is savagely stabbed while asleep.Weighed down by guilt and sleeplessness,Macbeth seeks out the witches for reassurance that he will not be defeated and to protect him from despair.
Distraught with guilt,Lady Macbeth walks(nakedly) and talks in her sleep,betraying the secret of Duncan's murder. The images of the film take the place of Shakespeare's language with spectacular realization and a modernist interpretation, using a rhythm and pacing that is Polanski's own,filmed as it was 2 years after the brutal murder of his wife Sharon Tate.This real experience bleeds into the raw and nasty feelings of dread.Jon Finch as Macbeth has a dark,lean energy and ferocity,Annis as Lady Macbeth,captures the fragility of madness rather than manipulative eroticism.Martin Shaw is superb as Banquo.The ending suggests the whole cycle of betrayal and murder will begin again.Shakespeare,in making a sympathetic Banquo(legendary ancestor of the Stuart kings),intended some flattery to James I;the play also appealed to his well-known interest in witchcraft.The real star is Polanski for one of the best filmed Shakespeares ever.The witches coven is something else.
on 31 January 2003
Anyone who considers Shakespeare boring would be well advised to watch this film. It is not for the fainthearted and it may give you nightmares, but it is gripping as it gathers pace towards the final white-knuckle-ride climax. The Olivier-type 'Shakespeak' which the actors use is rather jarring at times but it is well compensated for by the atmosphere created by Polanski and supported by music of the ethereal Third Ear Band. Martin Shaw steals the show with his portrayl of Banquo supported, suprisingly well, by a rather youthful Keith Chegwin playing his son. Cheggers escapes the clutches of Macbeth's murderous assassins unlike his father who returns as a spectre to haunt Macbeth.
As a youth I worked as an extra in this film, one of the many trees forming Birnam Wood approaching Dunsinane Castle. This involved many of us carrying a christmas tree across the moors of North Northumberland many times in adverse weather conditions. Everyone was cold and wet most of the time with interminable hanging around between shoots usually while 'Leo' with his smoke gun kept falling off his motorbike into peat bogs (mist features heavily in this film). Contrary to the sleeve notes, many of the scenes were filmed in the stunning scenery of Northumberland, including Lindisfarne Castle and Bamburgh Castle.
A must for GCSE students in my opinion to fire the enthusiasm for this play, the name of which must not be uttered!
on 11 February 2016
This was the first time I'd seen this film since I was studying Macbeth for GCSE, and the main thing I remembered about it was Martin Shaw (then mainly of Professionals fame) as Banquo - and the coronation scene, where Macbeth is lifted on the shield. The latter is in fact one of many visually striking moments, Polanski milking one of Shakespeare's most potentially 'filmic' stories for all it is worth. The fighting and killing is pretty full-blooded for 1971, though it might seem a bit limp today.
Like a lot of more recent Shakespeare films, though, this is stronger on spectacle than dialogue. A lot of the soliloquies are internalised - ie. the actor 'thinks' them, speaking them only as voiceover. It's an interesting idea, but rather hamstrings the acting possibilities. Mr and Mrs Macbeth (as my daughter calls them) are both a bit neurotic, and in general the cast are short on the traditional Shakespearean skills - most importantly, understanding the lines yourself and helping the audience to understand them. A lot of the lines feel rushed, the result of trying to a apply a more modern acting style, and overall the meditative aspect of the story is lost. But I have to say, with all its faults, I'd much rather sit through this than a camp, stagey version like the BBC one with Gandalf and M. Or, to be honest, one in broad Scauttish accents...
on 30 November 2002
I actually prefer this to the Nicol Williamson and Orson Wells versions of Macbeth. Polanski assembled a relatively unknown cast and got some great performances out of them. The cinematography is about as atmospheric as it gets. Polanski, as always, gets great visual results from his cinematographer. When one compares the results of this adaptation, financed by Playboy, with Caligula, fronted by Bob Guccione, one has to come away with at least some admiration for Heffner. At least he kept his hands off the production. This was Polanski circa the late 60's, about the time he filmed "The Fearless Vampire Killers "(one of my all-time favorite neglected masterworks), and before "Chinatown "(hardly neglected, yet exquisite direction, nevertheless). From "Macbeth's" opening frame on the bleak, windswept Scottish heath, to the closing image, this production is consistently stark( Even though it's not filmed in black-and-white, it feels like it is). It also contains one of the most moving cinematic treatments I've seen when conveying Macduff's agonizing sense of loss as he reacts to the report of Macbeth's attack upon his helpless family. Macduff's sense of self-recrimination as he admits he was not there to defend his wife and children (truly one of the most heart-rending moments in cinema history for me) comes across as genuine and heartfelt.
Polanski is a troubled genius, no doubt... We probably would have witnessed many more thought-provoking productions, akin to this one.
on 18 May 2011
There is a touch of genius running through the central core of this film. This is remarkable when one considers the tragic personal life of the Director - Romand Polanski - whose wife and unborn child was murdered by members of the Charles Manson gang in 1969. This movie was filmed in 1971, and some commentators believe that it might express the anguish Polanski felt at the time, for the death of his family. There is no doubting that this version of MacBeth is dark, but it might equally be stated that MacBeth - as a play by William Shakespeare (1564-1616) - was written to express the darkness of unchecked human greed, and naked ambition. Scotish royal history abounds in bloodshed, and MacBeth - believed to have been penned around the early 1600's, is designed to lead the audience into a stark and uncomfortable psychological space. Infact, so powerful is Shakespeare's writing, it is very difficult not to directly experience the guilt of MacBeth, as if it were one's very own!
Polanski sets the scene primarily in north Wales (Snowdonia), as a representation of rugged old Scotland. The play is set in 1040, the final year of King Duncan's reign, and the first of King MacBeth. MacBeth's castle is believed to have been in Inverness (on a cliff over-looking the River Ness) - this is where a significant portion of the play takes place, and of course, the murder of King Duncan. The final battle occur in and around the fortress Dunsinane, Perthshire - this is where MacBeth meets his bloody and spectacular end. Certain elements of Polanski's production appear to have been filmed in Northumberland, northeast England. It is commonly accepted that Shakespeare referenced the historical works of English academic Raphael Holinshed - particularly his 1587 edition of the Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland - which contains details of the real life story of King MacBethad mac Findlaech (1005-1057), who ruled Scotland from 1040 to 1057, it is this character that Shakespeare's MacBeth is based upon. The Shakespearean play gives the impression of a short and brutal reign - and yet King MacBeth ruled Scotland for 17 years.
Shakespeare has the witches on the heath prophesy that MacBeth will be king of Scotland. This simple act from a chance meeting, sets in motion a series of events that sees King Duncan murdered by MacBeth whilst in his bed, and MacBeth assuming the crown of Scotland, aided and encouraged at every step by his power-hungry wife. To be fair to MacBeth, he does show some hesitancy on his parrt regarding the moral issue of murdering a King that he has previously served with loyalty. It is Lady MacBeth that uses her considerable powers of persuation, to convince MacBeth to go ahead with the act, so that - what's done, is done - and that is very much that. Polanski's screen adaptation contains minor adjustments for the silverscreen. The medium of cinema is, of course, not that of the live theatre, and certain aspects of dialogue and character presentation have to be modified as a consequence. For instance, in the play, the audience does not 'see' MacBeth actually kill Duncan - rather they 'feel' it - but in Polanski's version, MacBeth is scene clearly entering the King's sleeping quarters and repeatedly stabbing him with a knife, and the cinema audience experiences witnessing the king awake, just as the fateful blows are struck! Polanski's adaptations add to the over-all power of Shakespeare's original play. Everything is in proportion, and is never at variants to the intention behind Shakespeare's words.
The violence is compelling. Jon Finch (MacBeth), is surprisingly fleet of foot in the combat sequences. More than this, however, Polanski does not insulate the audience against the reality of true brutality. Having been told by the witches that 'no man born of woman' can hurt or kill him, Polanski has MacBeth fight a breathtaking fifteen minutes or so, against members of the attacking army of MacDuff (which includes many Englishmen), as well as a two piece segment of combat against MacDuff himself. Using sword, dagger, stick, hands and feet, MacBeth - as the invincible king of Scotland - betters MacDuff in the first of their two parter. MacDuff then explains that he was not 'born of woman' exactly, but rather had been 'cut out' of his mother's womb, and was, therefore, not subject to the prophecy of the witches. MacBeth and MacDuff battle again, and in graphic etail, MacDuff beheads MacBeth. In many ways, these final fights scenes in the film are reminicient of Bruce Lee's battle with the guards, in his magnificent 1973 film 'Enter the Dragon', but interestingly, Polanski's MacBeth was filmed first.
Finally, a word about the title of the play. Today, it is common to see the play entitled 'MacBeth'. Shakespeare's original, however, is entitled 'The Tragedy of MacBeth' - Polanski's film appears to carry both titles. The cover of the DVD refers to 'Polanski's MacBeth', whereas the introductory titles to the film clearly state the title to be 'The Tragedy of MacBeth'. This might be a pure coincidence, but it might also show something of Polanski's attention to detail. I think Shakespeare would have applauded this film.
A little more than 400 years ago, at the turn of the 17th century, William Shakespeare, the greatest playwright in the history of the English-speaking peoples, brought forward the tragedy of "Macbeth" to please King James I, who was also James VI of Scotland. The story tells of a tragically ambitious Scottish lord, his scheming wife, and their downfall at the hands of three evil witches. Notwithstanding a few alterations by respected contemporary Thomas Middleton, Shakespeare's work survives him by four centuries, and continues to enrapture audiences worldwide. In 1971, director Roman Polanski brought to the world his deeply personal adaptation, brimming with realistic violence. It's quite clear that this film is Polanski exorcising the demons of his wife's brutal slaying. English actors Jon Finch and Francesca Annis star as Lord and Lady Macbeth, with an able (if indistinct) supporting cast; make no mistake though, this movie belongs to Finch and Annis. Annis' portrayal of the shrewish Lady Macbeth has been the focal point of much debate, with many considering her too soft, but I find her performance to be quite good. Finch is even better, bringing Macbeth's tortured, tragic, and ultimately tyrannical character to the screen. Scotland in this movie is a brooding, shadowy backdrop, and colour appears only with the arrival of the gaudy English army, coming to dethrone the tyrant Macbeth. Polanski and noted Shakespeare scholar Kenneth Tynan modified the Bard of Avon's texts, splitting up scenes and transferring lines from place to place, but the effect works perfectly.
on 12 August 2007
Not a movie to ignore as a potential theatrical bore fest, this one. There is absolutely nothing boring, stagey or difficult to understand about this full on movie version of Shakespeare's most filmic thriller. Polanski gives such vibrant life to the 400 year old play that it does veer a little close to cartoonish horror at times, and there is certainly an influence to be seen from this film in comic horror masterpiece Theatre Of Blood, released shortly after.
Roman Polanski is a noted master of visually powerful scenes, a real creative artist with the camera and this is probably his best example of his craftmanship. He really does pull out a lot of auteristic prize tricks in this film, and it is very clear this is exactly what the producers have hired him to do, without limits. A Playboy production, this was never going to be a subtle movie, but a full on, visually lurid entertainment. And fair play to them, there had been way too many half blooded theatrically inclined productions of Macbeth on film, so now was the time to show the blood and horror that was always in Shakepeare's violent tragedy, and very probably was portrayed in all its goriness with red ribbons and garish props on its origional release at The Globe.
And the production is absolutely stunning! Magnificent sets incredibly rich in detail trake your eye from the off. The costumes are lush, the set design really striking, the 1000 year old castle comes to life itself in this authentic looking but clearly technically anachronistic period design. But although some of the props and designs and fashions give away their later Norman heritage, it really does give a very atmospheric medieval flavour to the film.
The acting is very strong and a couple of performances really do shine out, including Jon Finch as Macbeth. The naturalistic support acting is very good, especially from the players of Ross and Macduff. But for me Martin Shaw as Banquo steals the film and it's not a huge surprise he's the one seen on the DVD cover and not Macbeth. That scene with him as a ghost with the crown on, taunting Macbeth with mirrors is absolutely sensational, and if there were Oscars for movie scenes, that one should at least have been up for it.
That's Polanski at his real best, visually powerful and memorable. From that scene on it all gets quite exciting, with the build up to the very stylistic fight to the death finale in the gloriously mdedieval looking castle. It's an 18 rated version of all those great Hollywood medieval castle fights where it looked a little tame and unreal. This final scene nails the bloody reality of what medieval man to man combat must have been nearer to, long before the even more anachronistic Braveheart did. Polanski's Macbeth is a masterpiece, with excesses for certain, but its boldness gets much closer to the spirit of the play than any other version. Very cinematic film and looks fantastic in widescreen here.
A flop in its day, Polanski's MacBeth now looks more and more like one of his finest achievements. Unlike many Shakespeare adaptations, Polanski opts for clarity and accessibility rather than elocutionary gymnastics, providing a brisk narrative and staging it with a real cinematic imagination that prevents it from ever becoming stage bound.
It's set in a believable, gritty world where the setting sun makes the very sands look bathed in blood and overcast skies and harsh elements provide an appropriate setting for betrayal and violence - LOTS of violence. Despite moments of black humour, it's pretty obvious what Polanski is trying to get out of his system in scenes of brutal murder or the ripping of MacDuff from his mother's womb. Francesca Annis doesn't quite scale the heights of madness as Lady MacBeth, but Jon Finch and Martin Shaw do well by MacBeth and Banquo and the supporting performances are pleasingly naturalistic. The use of location is excellent and well-served by Gilbert Taylor's Scope photography, while Third Eye Blind's scoring is surprisingly apt. Definitely one of the best Shakespeare screen adaptations, and a real movie as well.
The 2.35:1 transfer is for the most part excellent, although the only extra is a trailer for the film.