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Right between Rosemary's Baby and Chinatown, Roman Polanski helmed one of the best versions of "The Scottish Play" to ever see the silver screen. The dark brooding settings, the fanatical characters, and haunting images stay with you long after the movie ends. Merely a thane, Macbeth learns of the prophecy of his own future as the king of Scotland. Wary of other predictions attached with this regal foretelling, he proceeds as best he can to make it a reality. Stealing the show in every scene is Francesca Annis as Lady Macbeth. The excessive violence and nudity are sure to please those not appreciative of Shakespearean tragedy. Certainly not a movie for young kids, but it is a movie that everyone should have a chance to see.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
An excellent adaptation of (what I consider to be) Shakespeare's most
stirring work. Polanski magnificently captures the bloody, depressing, yet
somehow exhilarating essence of the Bard's tragedy.
The story, thankfully, isn't tinkered with too much at all. It's been some time since I saw the film, or, for that matter, read the play, but I do recall being thankful that the basic storyline was quite intact. It seems to me that one or two scenes were omitted, and a couple others were told in a chronological order slightly different from that in which they originally appeared.
However, despite the small changes, the storyline is compelling as ever. For the sake of those who haven't read Macbeth, allow me to attempt a brief summary. It's basically a simple tale. Ambitions and greed (and some unearthly predictions) drive a man to murder a king, and take his place. But upon taking the throne, Macbeth finds himself caught up in his own tangled web of murder and deceit. Eventually, he pays the ultimate price.
The story has been told countless times...but never like this. Polanski's vision is dark, moody and extremely violent (I mean it - if you're a weak hearted Bard fan, as Ms. Tillinghast seems to be, give this picture a very wide berth). The dreary atmosphere, enhanced by choice UK filming locations, perfectly complements Macbeth's increasingly miserable prediction, and the unflinching depiction of medieval warfare drives home with shattering force the consequences of the man's sins. The bloody combat scenes contrast quite nicely with Macbeth's often surreal visions and dreams of guilt (the daggers, Banquo's ghost, etc.)
** SPOILERS FOR PEOPLE WHO NEVER WENT TO HIGH SCHOOL, ERR, I MEAN, NEVER READ THIS STORY **
Polanski also makes use of some interesting camera techniques. The most remarkable is the point-of-view shot from Macbeth's severed head. We actually see through his eyes for some time, although his vision is (understandably) blurry. Then, as his head is paraded around atop a pike, the sound gradually fades out. A very creepy moment, indeed, as the audience watches Macbeth die from his own perspective.
Speaking of Macbeth's demise, this film's climactic battle is breathtaking. Sure, there aren't acrobatic leaps through the air and lightning-fast thrusts and parries a la Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves - but you know what? There shouldn't be! Medieval combat was indeed awkward and ungraceful, especially if one was wearing a cumbersome suit of armor and wielding a heavy sword, as are our two combatants here. I think this is the most realistic depiction I have ever seen of a fight between two armored soldiers.
In summary: a brutally immediate and visually sumptuous retelling of my favourite (read: the only one I really liked)Shakespeare play. 4 1/2 out of 5 stars.
A side note: For those interested in ancient or medieval combat, another outstanding combat sequence can be found in Rob Roy (1995). The mano-a-mano duel between Roy (using a broadsword) and Cunningham (a rapier) is superlative.
Roman Polanski's notoriously violent film of Shakespeare's notorious
"Scottish play" doesn't quite satisfy as it should. His bleak modernist
interpretation is ultimately just too limiting, still it's certainly a
bravura piece of moviemaking and can be best appreciated as such. After
this is not really Shakespeare per se but a Polanski film: the prevailing
themes of witchcraft, rampant paranoia, and finally triumphant evil pick
right where ROSEMARY'S BABY (1968) left off. And life is certainly
poor, nasty, brutish, and short in this movie -- Shakespeare's poetry
a backseat to a surfeit of excruciatingly detailed mutilations with plenty
of blades slashing through jugular veins, culminating in a truly epic
decapitation. This MACBETH is a relentless homicidal debauch: Polanski
displays the same technical virtuosity and gruesome inventiveness in
the numerous murders here as he did in REPULSION (1965). All of
Shakespeare's famous metaphors (e.g., `is this a dagger I see before me?')
are garishly literalized and deliberately engineered as part of an
escalating series of spectacular, cathartic, bloodier-than-hell
Visually, the film is rich and vivid: the forbidding images of rain-swept moors and twilit horizons possess a spellbinding primeval quality. And there are a few brilliant, inspired moments such as when our murderous Scot, whilst lying in his bed-chamber, broods "I am stepped in blood so far..." and the whole room is bathed in an eerie crimson light. But the scene that truly stands out is when he visits the witches in their lair and is shown his fate: it's a gorgeous, thrilling, and strikingly imaginative surrealist reverie, reminiscent of Buñuel's 'magical realism.' The actors, nearly all British stage pros, are solid and reliable. As Macbeth, morose, dark-eyed Jon Finch is really quite good -- and he certainly does have the diction for the role. But Francesca Annis' sickly nymphet Lady Macbeth is a glaring (and oh-so-characteristic) lapse in judgement on the director's part. Weak-voiced, pasty-faced, and generally irritating, this petulant, saucer-eyed little urchin has neither the skill nor the presence to adequately bring off one of Shakespeare's most formidable women. Annis' feeble performance renders the basic psychological premise of the play -- Lady Macbeth's manipulation of her husband to fulfill her delusions of grandeur -- unconvincing to say the least. Finch just looks uncomfortably stricken while Annis acts coy and childish.
All in all, Polanski's MACBETH is a decidedly thorny piece of work: since it was his first film following the murder of his pregnant wife Sharon Tate and friends by members of the Charles Manson cult, he seems to have had too much to prove here. He makes Banquo (Martin Shaw) Macbeth's rival and presents Ross (John Stride) as the play's eternal villain -- the faceless, blandly smiling Machiavellian 'company man' who shifts his allegiance as it suits him, crawling in and out of political woodwork at will. And by dispensing with the Bard's customary knot-tying closing speech and ending instead with an abrupt silent scene suggesting basically that the cycle of treachery and murder will spiral forever through the ages, Polanski seems to overstate his case.
Polanski's original version of Macbeth is nearly perfect and is an excellent adaptation of Shakespeare for the screen. The Elizabethan world is recreated to perfection, and there are moments of pure genius, such as having Lady Macbeth perform her sleep-walking scene in the nude. The only real weakness (but it's a considerable failing) is Polanski's handling of Macduff: Macduff is supposed to be heroic, the man who remains loyal to Duncan at the cost of his wife and family, the man who finally destroys Macbeth -- yet Polanski presents him as a clumsy weakling. Magnificent film, magnificent Shakespeare, one of Polanski's major triumphs.
Of all of Shakespeare's plays, MacBeth seems to be the one most likely to
badly produced on stage. Polanski's screen version brilliantly takes all
the things within the play which make it difficult and instead turns them
his favor to provide a dark, compelling rendering of the Scottish Play.
Taking us back to a primitive, dirty period of history, he presents it in
all its gritty reality. Eschewing prettified Shakespeare, the camera
us to see clothes dragging thru the mud, and animals running around the
castle environs. The men look as though they cut their hair by hewing it
off with a broadsword, and the Scottish countryside is shown cold and hard
as it can be when the mist of May isn't in the gloaming. The society of
play is one filled with political intrigue, where war is waged using
blunt weapons which essentially are used to bludgeon opponents to death,
where advancement often comes at the expense of other peoples' lives.
Polanski takes this setting and moves his dark vision along in it, giving
new glimpses into the play. Jon Finch and Francesca Annis, cast
age-appropriately, are excellent in the lead roles, but Polanski also
us a superb supporting cast to frame the leads, injecting more character
into the all too often faceless cast list: watch Ross expediently switch
political alliances probably more often than he changes his underwear; see
what could have happened to Donalbain, whose function disappears out of
play early in Act II; and watch the portrayals of the 3 leading weird
sisters, which meet all the requirements of the scripted descriptions, and
go a few steps further (have a drink out of that bubbling cauldron!!).
transition of Mac and his Lady from upwardly mobile nobles, to King &
and then through their respective downfalls is handled believably and
without the seams which often show in productions of the play. Finch &
Annis plumb the depths of the psyches of these characters and each
a clearly defined and fascinating interpretation of the roles. Blood is a
major image in the Bard's play and Polanski makes sure the audience knows
it. MacBeth almost literally becomes steeped in blood, and the actual
existence of it in the movie makes his descent even more believable, if
difficult for many to watch.
All in all, I think it's a fascinating production which pulls no punches.
Tammy Tillinghast poor taste when it cometh to the Bard's work on film. MacBeth is not for the "Shakespeare in Love" sentimentalists. My only regret is that it has not been released in a widescreen format for home video. By the way, it was never rated X. It is a work of absolute cinematic perfection and I can think of only one other adaptation of a Shakespeare tragedy that compares with it - Ian McKellan's Richard III. The acting, art direction, and cinematography, are flawless. If you find the subject matter disturbing - hey, you're perfectly normal! That, I'm sure was Shakespeare's (and Polanski's) intent. Evil is timeless...and still as compelling as ever (just ask that Serbian leader and his twisted wife....)
Probably the strangest bit of trivia about this version of MacBeth is
that it was produced by the Playboy corporation, of all things. Or
perhaps it's not really that surprising given director Roman Polanski's
lecherous ways that he was in alliance with Hefner et al. Certainly,
this isn't soft-porn Shakespeare (unless you count some elderly
nakedness and the leaving in of one of the bard's penis jokes). No,
this is in fact more in keeping with the era's penchant for realism,
especially in the field of violence.
The bleakness of a Scottish picture really suits Polanski, but it is his trademark feeling of enclosure that most of all gives this MacBeth its character. With the simplest of elements he can make the image feel maddeningly hemmed-in. There is a lot of heavy foreground business, as well as visible ceilings and low angles, but the real trick is the way Polanski gives us just a tiny glimpse of an exit. There is, for instance, a shot just before MacBeth gets made thane where he awakens in his tent. As he raises his head a gap in the seams of the tent comes into view, and the result is more claustrophobic than if it had been simply bare canvas behind him. This confined atmosphere is of best effect in the Duncan murder scene, which has echoes of the demon rape in Rosemary's Baby, Polanski's previous picture. Note that there is no dialogue in this scene; it is not an official part of the play and most versions do not include it. So Polanski is taking a gamble in showing the act, but he pulls it off fairly well. Also very good is the dreamlike series of visions in the witches' den, which go for a warm, prickly fear rather than spooky chills.
In coaching his actors Polanski seems to want to shear the production of all theatricality, treating Shakespeare's play as if it were a new screenplay rather than a thing of grand traditions. Hence we get the witches' rather businesslike manner of stating that they are off to meet with MacBeth. As such, while not badly acted, the performances don't really stand out. The naturalism is nice to see, but it could do with a little more heart and soul. Another problem is that some of the more quirky bit players, for example Richard Pearson as the doctor, seem strangely out-of-place amid the more sober lead actors. Polanski makes up for the lack of grandiose hamming with plenty of blood-spattered medievalism, with stabbed-up corpses, bear-baiting matches and rolling heads. This is all fair enough, but perhaps the production could have done with a bit more of the old theatrics, to bring out the life in Shakespeare's lines.
And it also seems somewhat that Polanski has got caught up in the gore and authenticity and neglected some of the more abstract elements of the original work. For example, I would have liked to see a better realisation of the idea that the land itself, via the metaphor of the transplanted forest, is rejecting its false king. Not that one necessarily has to be faithful to every thought of the bard I am all for reinterpretation it's just that without some kind of commentary, some kind of ideal, it seems MacBeth becomes little more than a dreary catalogue of unpleasant happenings.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This is not simply the filming of a stage production. If you were to
watch it with the sound off you would think it a work of pure cinema
and not guess its origins. Consider the opening scene where a
wide-angle shot of a lovely sunrise over an expansive furrowed beach
morphs into early morning, a smooth beach, and the sounds of gulls. We
feel a sense of isolation and calm, but our mood is interrupted by a
close-up of a crude stick being plunged into the sand by a grotesque
witch. The mood instantly shifts and one of the basic themes of the
movie is established - things are not always what they seem. And, at
the end of the fist scene, the witches are seen walking slowly off into
the fog rather than their just talking about hovering through the fog.
I have never seen a stage production of "Macbeth," but it is hard to
imagine an opening scene on a stage that sets a mood and grabs your
attention more effectively. There are numerous scenes illustrating the
power of the image: Duncan and his entourage arriving on horseback with
banners flying; the invisible, but visible, dagger leading Macbeth to
Duncan's chamber; Banquo's ghost at the banquet; the three apparitions
revealed by the witches; the beautifully filmed landscapes; and so on.
One wonders if Shakespeare would be writing for the screen if he were
Never having read the play, I have to confess that I was confused enough by who was who after the first half hour that I backed off and read it. It was well worth the effort. There are numerous websites to help with an understanding of the play. The DVD could benefit from a menu item that provides some background information, at least a run-down on the characters. The screenplay deletes a third or more of the original text, but it adheres to the play in all significant ways. Most all of the text in the screenplay comes directly from Shakespeare. There is some rearrangement of scenes and minor modifications, such as Macdonwald's being hanged in the king's palace (for us to see) rather than just having his death on the battlefield reported. There are some interpretations that appear to be Polanski's. For example, when Ross leaves lady Macduff, a simple nod to the gatekeeper on the way out of the castle implies his complicity in the murder of Macduff's family; there is nothing in the original text that would necessarily indicate this, but one can speculate on a rationale for it.
I doubt that it would satisfy the blood lust of Mel Gibson, but this "Macbeth" has many scenes of graphic violence. Duncan's murder is filmed to chilling effect, but it is a pivotal, if not the pivotal, scene. Seeing it in grisly detail gives us insight into Macbeth's subsequent behavior and mental afflictions. Also, it establishes Macbeth as a, well, not altogether pleasant man. In the final scene, instead of following the stage direction, "Enter Macduff, with Macbeth's head," we are treated to the horrific beheading itself and, as if that were not enough, the head is mounted on a pole and waved above the parapets. Some may want to avert their eyes.
The actors are up to the task, although I found Francesca Annis' Lady Macbeth to be less sinister than the screenplay would suggest. Her sleepwalking scene in the nude is a bit of a stretch, particularly since in the original text the observing doctor recounts that in her walk she is seen to "throw a nightgown upon her." Jon Finch reminds me a bit of a young Peter O'Toole, though I think O'Toole would have had a hard time dialing back his outsized personality to fit into this no-frills adaptation. In fact one of the best things I like about this "Macbeth" is its restraint in not being staged as the story of a noble soul struggling with mighty demons, but rather that of an accomplished warrior fated to be brought down by his overreaching ambition. That may rob the play of its mythic status that some seem to expect, but it makes for believability. A great example of this restraint is the final fight between Macbeth and Macduff. It is presented as such a fight might occur, with ungainly grappling, head butting, awkward sword thrusts, ungraceful falls, stumbles, kicks, and momentary exhaustion. Many such fights in Shakespearian productions are so choreographed that they are almost ballets; it was refreshing to see a realistic one.
Comments have been made that this movie violates Shakespeare's true intent. But, four hundred years later, who is to say what Shakespeare's true intent was? Polanski's "Macbeth" is serious, coherent, and believable. I found it captivating.
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.
This may very well be the most accessible Shakespeare for Young Moderns
who Scoff at the impenetrable Dialog and Antiquated Language and
setting of a World so Long Ago, of the most well Known and most often
Quoted Writer in History.
It combines Cinema with Theatre and the Hip Ultra-Violence that was beginning to become the Standard in Movies with a Style and Technique that was Filmmaking at its Best in 1971.
Roman Polanski's Vision of the Author's Darkest Work never for a minute seems Dated and the Director manages to make a 1970's Movie where the Color looks Lush and Not Muted and the Sound well Rounded and Not Tinny.
The Acting and the Soundtrack are also surprisingly Palatable and bring an Aura of Historical Authenticity through the Lense of the Twentieth Century. This is an excellent Achievement in Cross Purposes. Never Relinquishing any of the Plays Legacy Polanski manages this Impeccably.
Shakespeare's Work is a Violent and Mystical Tragedy, Downbeat and an unflinching unfolding of its contemporary Court Intrigue. Polanski Captures the Essence and roots of the Films Inspiration with Authentic Artistry and at the same time Delivers a 400 Year Old Work via a Hollywood Time Machine that along the way somehow developed a Patina of its Destination.
Overlooked, Ignored, Dismissed, and sometimes Maligned on the Initial Release, it has Weathered the Storm of controversy and indifference to become, arguably, the Best Cinematic Unleashing of William Shakespeare's Work.
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