MacBeth (Roman Polanski, 1971) – Roman Polanski’s cinematic adaptation of Macbeth is a fascinating movie for a number of reasons beyond its actual content. It was (along with the Monty Python greatest hits project And Now For Something Completely Different) the first film produced by Playboy despite a complete lack of eroticism. It’s also the first project Polanski made following the murder of his wife, Sharon Tate, at the hands of the Manson family, which opens it up to all manner of unintentionally autobiographical readings involving the intense violence, the themes of youthful ambition perverted by evil forces, and a particularly graphic home invasion murder sequence. Then there’s the fact that due to the time and location of this MacBeth’s creation, it falls with the peak production of the British folk horror film (including titles like The Witchfinder General, Blood On Satan’s Claw, The Wicker Man, and countless Hammer Horror productions). It not only feels like an unofficial entry in the genre, but fits in appropriately given that Macbeth is certainly the literary origin point for British folk horror. So, there are any number of reasons to adore and study the film quite aside from the fact that it’s inarguably one of the greatest Shakespeare film adaptations ever conceived, making it an ideal new entry for the Criterion Collection.
The plot is, of course, MacBeth as intended. The tale of the warrior MacBeth (Jon Finch) taking his wife’s (Francesca Annis) advice to assume the throne through murder, only for a collection of witches and the cold hand of fate to lead the story head first into grand tragedy. It’s one of the simplest and shortest Shakespeare narratives, so any changes that Polanski and his co-screenwriter (famed English critic/playwrite Kenneth Tynan) impose are purely for pacing, style, or interpretation.
Polanski’s approach is stark, violent, and unforgivingly harsh. It’s the darkest film he made in a career defined by darkness. Some have criticized Polanski for dwelling on the violence and supping up the spectacle, yet he’s only being true to Shakespeare’s nasty little play. Likewise, many will complain about the flat readings that he drew from his actors. Yet again, this feels appropriate for cinematic translation. Polanski attempts to play the poetic dialogue as naturally as possible and encouraged a certain level of underperformance to suit the demands of the big screen and avoid theatricality. It’s a risky move that’s unconventional in many ways, yet one that makes the brutal cinematic adaptation play in a modern manner that should appeal to more than the usual Shakespeare buffs even if that broader audience won’t exactly race to see it in the same numbers. A poor commercial decision perhaps, yet an inspired artistic one.
Polanski in no way hides from the intellectual aspirations of the play. It’s still a story of sordid ambition and unhealthy relationships explored poetically. However, the director also recognizes the piece’s horror film potential and embraces that head on. His film revels the murky, misty locations. His violence is swift, graphic, shocking, and bloody (though his decision to play the sword fights at a sped up frame rate occasionally accidentally pushes into Benny Hill territory). The tone is oppressively bleak. His witches are played by non-actors with extraordinarily aged faces and he places them into terrifying Hieronymus Bosh influenced tableaus. It’s a film that digs under the skin and chills to the bone. Some might consider that to be a needlessly sensationalistic interpretation of the text, but others will realize that it’s exactly how the confirmed populist Shakespeare intended his play to work on audiences. It’s also worth noting that MacBeth translated remarkably well through three film adaptations that unlocked the genre movie potential of the piece. Orson Welles used a B-movie budget for a noir and gothic horror influenced MacBeth in 1948. Akira Kurosawa translated the MacBeth into a very Japanese ghost story with samurai in his masterpiece Throne of Blood. Then came Polanski with this unrelenting 70s horror version. Polanski’s interpretation is a visceral masterpiece pitched on the line between high and low culture; the exact same line that Shakespeare walked back in the day.
Polanski’s MacBeth debuts on Blu-Ray in the type of stunning package that only Criterion could provide. After years of murky, bare bones home video presentations, Criterion has delivered a beauty. The video transfer of Polanski’s packed and atmospheric wide screen frames is nothing short of a revelation. The pleasingly film-like presentation perfectly captures Polanski’s grey, overcast lighting schemes without ever sacrificing the deep (and often disgusting) details crammed into every image. It’s an overwhelming visual experience that Criterion’s Blu-Ray captures masterfully. Quite simply, watching MacBeth on this Blu-Ray feels like watching it for the first time and the immersively atmospheric sound mix makes it all full on sensory assault. Given the beauty of the tech specs, the disc was already a must own. Then Criterion made it even better with a robust special feature section.
First off comes a wonderful, freshly produced hour long documentary featuring lovingly found and detailed memories from Polanski, producer Andrew Braunsberg, Playboy executive Victor Lowner, actress Francesca Annis, and actor Martin Shaw. Everything from the challenging production, to the Playboy brand confusion, the controversial reception, and Polanski’s possible Manson family influence is discussed in great detail. As if that weren’t enough, there’s also a 48-minute BBC-produced documentary shot on the set, showing Polanski and co. making the movie that’s an amazing archival discovery and perfect companion piece to the new doc (even Hugh Hefner pops up). Then there’s a half-hour British TV interview with Polanski about his interest in the play, a Dick Cavett appearance from Kenneth Tynan offering his perspective, and the original trailer that hilariously highlights the incongruity between the Playboy brand and Polanski’s film.
Criterion’s Macbeth Blu-Ray is an amazing presentation of a deeply underrated film that would feel like a revelation were it not for the fact that the company specializes in such magnificent releases at this point. Race out to get it. This is easily one of the finest discs that Criterion have ever produced. (Phil Brown)