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A few years after this was released in the USA, I convinced my high
school English teacher to take our class to see it. (In the days before
videos & vcr's, this involved renting a theater and print.) I was glad
I did. It is certainly the most real and immediate filmed version of
the play. The sets, costumes (or lack thereof), and casting all work to
create an accurate depiction of "nasty, brutal, and short" 11th century
life. And of course, there is the wonderful insight of Shakespeare's
language to engage our modern sensibilities.
One can only thank Polanski for casting such relatively young actors as his leads. Kings lived and died young then, and had to be both excellent generals as well as administrators to succeed. Jon Finch is both athletic and impassioned enough to carry off the soldiering, and young and introspective enough to be moved by his wife both as a woman and co-conspirator. Of course Francesca Annis made a splash by doing the mad scene in the nude--but in medieval times, everyone slept in the nude, so it was certainly accurate to the times.
And as has been noted before, at least the castle keeps are cold, dark, and dirty. The communal sleeping arrangements, straw bedding, flaring smoky torches, seeping walls, and muddy yards all contribute to the historical accuracy of this production. The exterior of Bamburgh also works. And keeping with Shakespeare's light vs. dark metaphors, the mist, rain, and lowering skies combine to enhance the mood.
What happens in this "Macbeth" is as realistic as possible. So what happens offstage in the play, happens onstage in the film: the murders of Duncan, Banquo, Macduff's family. Murder is nasty and bloody and Polanski (having much experience of its results) makes sure we know it. Medieval Scotland was nasty and bloody as well, and if the film is accurate in depicting its setting, why not the action? And only Polanski has an ending that hints that violence and ambition didn't die with Macbeth's overthrow. All said, Polanski's film still has the most accurate medieval setting, engaging performance(s), and thrilling battles.
PS. For those interested in the real historical Macbeth, read Dorothy Dunnett's excellent biographical novel "King Hereafter". Dunnett is world renowned for her historical accuracy, and did much research to create not only a very plausible rendition, but a thoroughly interesting and entertaining story as well.
Polanki's 1971 Macbeth was a real treat. Before I watched it I was expecting to sleep for two hours like I did most of the BBC versions of Shakespeare films. This however brought a whole realistic and gritty, almost pulp effect, to the famous tragedy. I do believe that Polanski was ruminating over his recent trauma of the gruesome murder of his wife, Sharon Tate. And a great deal of his emotion is evident in the carnage of this film. However, Macbeth is a bloody story to begin with. I feel Roman was correct in revealing rugged Medieval Scotland in all of its bleak and grisly details. Jon finch is well cast as the ferocious thane whose personal insecurity and manipulations from his wife lead to his demise. Francesca Annis is correctly unorthodox playing Lady Macbeth with faint shrewdness and not too shrill. She is a perfect foil to her counterpart as she is both poised and stunningly beautiful. The fight scenes are believable without looking too choreographed. Polanski took artistic license a bit while wavering from the script and adding his avant garde effects. They are effective and help illustrate the play without deviating too much from the archaic language. This would not be a good choice for the squeamish, but for those looking for a bit of culture, history and film noir, Polanski's Macbeth is worth seeing.
I remember watching this film in my Grade 11 English class when we were
studying William Shakespeare's "Macbeth". Reading the story a couple of
times, I rather enjoyed the classic tale to a degree. Whether or not it
would convincingly translate to film, I, along with my class, was about to
find out...with Roman Polanski's 1971 film adaptation, also produced by -
HUGH HEFNER?!? As strangely amusing as the "Playboy" credit seemed in the
opening credits, we were prepared for a very interesting take on the famous,
Shakespearean tragedies/comedies being translated to film are nothing new, of course. There have been some clear hits and misses over the decades - but fortunately, "Macbeth" does not fall into that latter "miss" category, for it is a tremendously underrated, very surprising, and overall competently made film. Roman Polanski is an excellent director here, and the acting, music, and effects (some of which - particularly the "dagger/murder" sequence - perversely amused my fellow classmates, who are obviously jaded by today's overblown, unsubtle, effects-laden "dramas") worked well for me. As well, the graphic violent and sexual nature of the film (which was also sometimes entertaining to the class, sadly) shocked me quite a bit. Of course, for a film made in 1971, Polanski's "Macbeth" isn't exactly "tame", if you will. Apparently it was rated X at the time, when the notorious film rating existed. I'm not sure if that's true or not, but it clearly wouldn't be surprising if it were, especially considering how intense this film can get - both physically and psychologically. It works extremely well as an old-fashioned action-packed thriller, and even to someone who knew the story fairly well, it was an exciting little soap opera to behold. The class really enjoyed it as well, I'm glad to say; even for all its "old" qualities (i.e. the twangy psychadelic-sounding music that plays upon the closing credits) it still achieved a certain charm that was impossible to deny.
One of the most impressive and enjoyable Shakespearean films I have ever seen, "Macbeth" deserves much more acclaim than scorn - for it is well-made, and enormously faithful to its original source, capturing all the details of ol' Scotland and its inhabitants with great care. It's a wonderful treat. Highly recommended.
Dark, bloody and brooding version of Shakespeare's play about a doomed
Scottish king who was, according to his wife, Lady MacBeth "too full of the
milk of human kindness to catch the nearest way". This is one of
Shakespeare's later plays and is entirely devoid of some of the lighter
moments prevalent in his earlier work.
Macbeth, a loyal Scottish thane and a cousin of King Duncan, is waylaid with his companion, Banquo, by three witches who prophesise that he will become king and that Banquo will beget kings. Once MacBeth has informed his wife of these predictions, he is propelled by her and by his own lust for power on a journey of self-destruction leading ultimately to madness. In his determination to bring about the witches' predictions, he kills his liege-lord, steals the crown from the rightful heirs, who flee into exile on suspicion of regicide and patricide, then orders the secret murder of ally and friend Banquo and Banquo's son Fleance. So begins a descent into a nightmare existence, replete with ghostly apparitions, sleepless angst and withering self-doubt. Gradually mutual distrust emerges between himself and the nobles whose support maintains his position, and eventually he murders the wife and children of one MacDuff, an act which symbolises the horror he has become. MacDuff, along with other Scottish nobles, has joined the exiled heir, Malcolm, who lives under the protection of the English king. An army of rebellion - or liberation - is brought to bear on MacBeth's stronghold, whilst inside, MacBeth has begun "to grow aweary of the sun". The witches have told him that he cannot be killed by any "man of woman born". But, in the final fight scene, he learns too late that MacDuff "was, from his mother's womb, untimely ripped" and that the witches have, in Banquo's words from the start of the play, won him "with honest trifles" and betrayed him "in deepest consequence", and his destruction is complete.
This is a suitably melancholic reading, full of images of blood, of sombre leaden skies, of torrential downpours and of thickset, bearded nobles. Scotland is presented as a gloomy outcrop on the edge of the known world and the sun has been heavily filtered by Polanski, giving the film a surreal and eerie feel and stressing the superstitious environment in which the play is set. We are also treated to a fair representation of the early Middle Ages, a time when travelling lords and ladies and their kith and kin slept communally on straw in the great halls, side by side with their massive hunting dogs.
The obviously archaic dialogue has been abridged and everso slightly updated for modern audiences. The lines are delivered eloquently by the two leads, Jon Finch and Francesca Annis, who are well matched as the doomed couple, and this clipped entry would be a good introduction to Shakespeare for those of the MTV-set with a literary inclination. All in all a good stab at bringing Shakespeare into the twentieth century and an effort which the bard himself might well have smiled upon.
When the text is cut, folks like me hope to hear the rhythm preserved.
Polanski and Tynan opted not to try to cut this way. However, what is
remarkable about Polanski's film is that the images cut from the
language are instead presented visually. Read the play just before
watching the film, and you'll see what I mean. A great film for
students who are studying, and reading, the play.
This is also one of the great efforts by RSC master fight choreographer William Hobbs, who followed this film with the comic fights of Richard Lester's "Three Musketeers" films. On the stage, Macbeth's next-to-last fight with Young Seyward is often a "warmup" for the big finale with Macduff. Here, it brings the audience back to what characters had to say about "the noble Macbeth" at the play's beginning, before his descent. Hobbs plays Young Seyward, and is established early on, training men to fight. Their astonishing confrontation leaves you wishing Macbeth didn't have to perish.
As another reviewer noted, the DVD and VHS box art is a testament to Columbia Home Video's botched handling: they put Banquo on the cover by accident. The shot is from Macbeth's vision of Banquo and his sons, actor Martin Shaw wears a crown...you can see how easily the mistake could be made, especially if the person designing the art hasn't bothered to watch the film. But never fear, the geniuses at Columbia made it up to Jon Finch. There's a terrific photo of him as Macbeth in the final fight with Macduff. You'll find it on the back of Columbia's edition of Nicol Williamson's "Hamlet." When you're in marketing, I guess all Shakespearean actors look alike...
How does one do justice to one of the most nihilistic murderers in the
history of drama? Even Richard the Third has a sense of humor. but once
MacBeth buys into the witch's prophecy (which he doesn't have to do) -
it's all straight to hell from there. Even his wife finally gets the
idea that 'When you choose to ride the tiger, you don't get off' as one
Confucian wit put it, long ago....
This is the film that put an end to the "high-school" Shakespeare that we all had to suffer through in the 1960s. That Shakespeare was dull, lifeless, meaninglessly conservative - everyone hated him. In America, we had heard about Peter Brooks, and about an all-nude MacBeth (which of course never happened, the reference was to the "out damn spot' scene, just as we see in this movie); and there were the legendary Orson Welles versions that were, unfortunately, wholly unavailable at the time. Then Zeffirelli made his Romeo and Juliet, showing Romeo's bare butt, even in the ad for the film, and we started getting the glimmer that Shakespeare had been a real person writing about other real people - then came Polanski's MacBeth.
I won't lie and tell you that this is the definitive MacBeth - or even that it's a really great movie - all of the actors seem like they are way over their heads in this material.
But Polanski's purely cinematic bravado pulls it off. Right from the beginning, watching a medieval warrior beat his opponent into a bloody pulp, we are drawn into a world where violence is the only truth we can believe - pretty much as MacBeth himself sees it.
From this point on, there was no turning back. The Shakespeare we inherit from this film may not be the one we want, but he is certainly a playwright of Elizabethan England (which the "high-school" Shakespeare never was).
That makes this film really important - at least until the definitive version actually gets made (and it hasn't, yet...).
Roman Polanski's blood-soaked version of Shakespeare's Scottish play
was the video version of choice when we were studying this at school,
in spite of it having a nude Lady Macbeth and witches (and Keith
Chegwin in the cast - he's Banquo's son).
Jon Finch has the lead and he is exceptionally good. Even a dagger which really appears to float before him (an effect not needed) doesn't spoil things. Odd that he never really got good movie roles after this. His Lady M is Francesca Annis, a spider of a schemer, also putting in a good performance.
Less adequate are Martin Shaw as Banquo, Stephan Chase as Malcolm, and Sydney Bromley as the Porter, although Terence Bayler gives good value as Macduff.
Perhaps this Macbeth is the first one to be truly cinematic, something that even Orson Welles couldn't achieve with Scots accents and Scandinavian settings. It remains memorable long after seeing and, in its excesses, opens up the text for a new generation, and finally, sees the repellent murdering usurper get what he deserves.
(Incidentally for perspective, the book 'Macbeth - man and myth' by Nick Aitchison looks at the real historic facts in accessible coffee-table book style).
THE PLOT: Through ambition, greed, and the spurring of his wife a man
rises to the ranks of King, but leaves murder, destruction, guilt, and
a wide array of enemies in his wake.
THE POSITIVE: This is visually stunning from beginning to end. The photography of the Scottish landscape seems almost surreal. Although some may argue that the violence is excessive it is still well done and works in a nice lyrical fashion with the script. The gory special effects are very realistic and top anything that I have seen in any slasher movie especially the decapitation scene. The witches also come off as looking very frightening here. The scene in their coven where you see dozens of fully nude elderly women is grotesquely brilliant. This is one Shakespeare rendition that doesn't have any of the stiff staginess. The characters seem to be having real conversations and their lines are spoken in a much more natural way. Finch is absolutely perfect in the lead. The facial expressions that he show during Macbeth's different phases are fascinating and right on target. This would be a good version to show to teenagers and others who might not ordinarily be into Shakespeare. The action is well mounted and paced so anyone would be able to follow it even if they are not able to completely grasp the language.
THE NEGATIVE: Outside of a relentlessly bleak visual style that may be too much for some there really isn't anything negative about it.
THE LOWDOWN: This is the best film adaptation to Shakespeare's work that I have seen. It is exciting, graphic, realistic, visual, and captivating all at the same time even for those that may not be into Shakespeare.
THE RATING: 8 out of 10.
To get the obvious out of the way- Roman Polanski directed Macbeth as
the first film following the death of his wife, Sharon Tate, and unborn
child at the hands of Charles Manson's gang. That factor in the film-
not least of which in small details, like the first shot after the
opening credits where a man finishing slaying someone looks just like
Manson, beard and all- is undeniable, but it shouldn't be counted as
the sole influence. Aside from the purging, as far as I can figure,
Polanski was doing for himself by going all out in showing the frank
and bloody depictions of violence and almost cleansing (as Lady Macbeth
would do in madness) of blood on hands that could never come off, of
the sort of psychological impact of violence and its aftermath, it was
a bloody time in the world and in films. As Vietnam continued to go on,
the best films of 1971- and Macbeth could be counted as one of them-
were some of the most stylish and explicit in how they attacked systems
of government, corruption, and bad-ass anti-heroes or outright villains
(A Clockwork Orange and Dirty Harry come immediately to mind). It would
practically be dishonest, in a sense, for Polanski not to show how
grotesque the acts of murder that, for example, Macbeth's men do on
MacDuff's family and servants, or the simple, sadistic carnage of
Macbeth's final curtain call in the climax, considering the mood and
controversies of the period.
Compared to some of the really radical films of the year, however, Macbeth's story is as old and cherished as children's fables. Yes, children, you all remember the story of ambitious young Macbeth, prodded on by the alleged prophecies of three weird witches, who murders the king by his own (and his wife's) accord, and soon goes mad as power grips him into overreaching his domain and believing himself to be invincible to all but a fleet of woods. Not really too much happiness in Shakespeare's work, and all the better, as it might be his masterpiece: a saga of the frailties of the human conscience and abstractions of consciousness, where the supernatural substitutes just as well for faith in some religious calling- and a questioning and doubt throughout- and what it does to those around the Mr & Mrs who still can't cope deep down with killing a man in the dead of night. Yet even more incredible is that Polanski, as well as Kurosawa with Throne of Blood, enrich the material with the film adaptations, changing around some scenes, omitting some altogether, and offering brands of surrealism based on preferred styles.
While Kurosawa stuck to the Noh method for much of his film, Polanski's Macbeth is an atmospheric milestone as far as concrete production design can go (never once does it feel like they used a fake castle, or much of a fake set even), and all the grays and dark Earth colors, especially when Macbeth goes to the witches a second time, blend into something that matches the psychological conundrum of the king of Scotland and his desperate wife. But seeing Polanski take things further, with touches of the bizarre (the floating and illusionary dagger, the drops of blood in Lady's hands, and the spectacular scene of Macbeth seeing through the windows, shot in a hazy and pirouetting camera), and showing what was only alluded to in strange and exciting ways- the killing scene in the bedroom feels almost like the Psycho shower scene, missed stabs and the messy quality of it all, only from the guilty party's point of view. This, plus the attention to detail in storytelling, the nuanced and gleefully over-the-top dialog provided very close to the original text, and even hand-held camera-work right out of something in Repulsion, makes this a work of daring for Polanski, not simply in the realm of elaborate fights (though there is that) or blood-shed (a lot of that) or decapitations (one or two gushing ones).
Though not to forget as part of the success too, aside from the director's total control of mis-en-scene, are the actors. Jon Finch, who also appeared in Frenzy, is a tightly wound loose cannon, if that makes sense, whose voice-over narration sometimes blends in with talking to himself, and the look in his eyes sometimes tells all, or perhaps not, as case might be. Although Welles and Mifune have their fair share of great Macbeth points in other films, Finch proves himself as on their same level, if only for this one moment in his career. Also very noteworthy (albeit such a meaty part for any actress) is Francessa Annis as Lady Macbeth, and Terence Baylor as MacDuff, and Stephan Chase as Malcolm is a very good choice. And as usual Polanski populates his picture with effective faces, strange looks that seem very conventional and at the same time all apart of the visual and mood. I loved seeing the whole room of witches, most naked (thanks to Hugh Hefner mayhap), and it almost seeming as if a bare minimum of make-up was used.
Bottom line, if you're looking for a hallmark of the dark literary drama, or a disturbing tale of the madness of power, or just a classic Polanski film, it's all here.
"The Tragedy of Macbeth" (simply abbreviated "Macbeth" on most video
covers) is a violent retelling of Shakespeare's classic story. Macbeth
(Jon Finch), the Scottish Thane of Glamis, conspires with his wife Lady
Macbeth (and three strange witches) to kill the widely-respected King
Duncan. After committing the awful deed, Macbeth begins hallucinating,
hearing strange omens of death and haunting words; his wife similarly
becomes worried with Macbeth's bloodlust, and Duncan's son convinces
himself that Macbeth was involved in some way with the killing.
"Macbeth" is a true tragedy, and chances are you already know a great deal about it as it seems to be a high school requirement that it be read by all students. The remarkable thing about Roman Polanski's movie is that it is not only a painfully accurate retelling of William Shakespeare's story, but doesn't flinch when it comes to violence.
According to IMDb's trivia section (and I can't honestly say how reliable this information is, mind you), Polanski included very violent scenes (such as Duncan's death, which is NOT detailed in the original text) because the movie was filmed around the same time period of Sharon Tate's brutal murder, and it was Polanski's way of venting stress and anger. One must imagine what happens to Duncan in this film is what Polanski wanted to do to the Manson family members (and you certainly can't blame him).
As such, knowing the circumstances of what brought about the violence, it is more forgivable and certainly maintains a haunting element - some kind of historical relic, just in knowing that it was filmed during such a terrible time in Polanski's life.
The movie as a whole is wonderful. As I mentioned above, its accuracy (in comparison to Shakespeare's text) is spot-on -- entire scenes of dialogue are taken directly from the source, and even the strong violence lends the film a more realistic nature.
Overall, it's an epic and (sadly) somewhat forgotten Shakespeare epic. If you enjoyed "Hamlet" or "Romeo and Juliet" (the '60s version) you'll certainly find this engaging, and - at times - rather shocking, too.
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