Directed by: Roman Polanski
Written by: Roman Polanski, Kenneth Tynan (Adapted from the play by William Shakespeare)
Starring Jon Finch, Francesca Annis, Martin Shaw, Terence Bayler
As a film, Polanski’s Macbeth is an accomplished adaptation; remaining true to the source material while still retaining the authorial stamp of its director. The story behind the production reveals Macbeth to be filmmaking as therapy. A coping mechanism for a real life tragedy.
Without Charles Manson, Roman Polanski’s Macbeth does not exist. It’s a tragic case of cause and effect, in which the grizzly murder of actress Sharon Tate — Polanski’s pregnant wife — by members of the Manson family resulted in a period of turmoil and depression for Polanski, forcing his career onto an alternate path. Previously he’d been attached to write and direct Day of the Dolphin, which he quickly abandoned. Understandably, Polanski’s head space simply didn’t gel with the sort of creative energy required to bring the tale of a pair of talking dolphins to the big screen. Instead, that film was handed off to Mike Nichols, resulting in some inspired dialogue scenes between George C. Scott and his talking dolphin “Fa”. It’s interesting to think that in some alternate timeline in which Charles Manson was never born, Roman Polanski might have directed Day of the Dolphin.
Like many people suddenly forced to face unexpected tragedy, Polanski made a point of losing himself in his work. He was suffering severe depression and ultimately sought out a project in which he could make good use of his guilt and sorrow. He arrived at a big screen retelling of William Shakespeare’s tragedy of Macbeth. One of his favourite filmmakers, Orson Welles, had previously adapted the story just over 20 years earlier, but Polanski felt he could top it. Only one thing stood in his way; money. It was a project that he couldn’t get financed until Victor Lownes, VP of Playboy Enterprises in the UK, stepped in and offered Polanski the money he needed to see his vision through.
It was a perfect marriage really, both in terms of the dour subject matter — mirroring Polanski’s depressive state — and the source material’s sense of paranoia, sexuality, and underlying supernatural elements, all of which are themes Polanski had explored in films like Rosemary’s Baby, The Tenant, and Repulsion.
Polanski’s take on Macbeth is an aggressive, dirty, violent affair. He seems to embrace the idea of filmmaking as therapy, allowing his grief to manifest itself through the work, resulting in a gritty and realistic interpretation of this inherently grim story. One can’t help but think his gory staging of the aftermath of the murder of Macduff’s wife and kids might have been inspired by — and commenting on — the Manson family’s grizzly Beverley Hills crime scene. Polanski is working through some serious shit on screen, and the film is that much better for it.
Macbeth follows a trusted blueprint and from what I can tell — I haven’t read the play since high school — Polanski and co-writer Kenneth Tynan rarely stray from the text. A few characters have been expanded upon, but the story remains as is. Shakespeare adaptations are such pure exercises in storytelling that they’re really defined either by the filmmaker’s restraint or self-indulgence. It’s like a good chef who knows when to get creative with a dish and when to step back and let the natural flavours of the ingredients do the work for them. In this case, Polanski strikes a great balance.
For me, the true star of Polanski’s Macbeth is the locations. Filmed in the British Isles, the real world locales give the film both a sense of realism and beauty. They capture a time and a place, but it never feels like Polanski exploits the landscapes. He and cinematographer Gil Taylor retain an earthy, nearly monochromatic look to the hills and mountains, broken only by the occasional orange and red hues of a setting sun. The world feels lived in and real; the opposite of what you’d traditionally expect from a typically stylized stage play. It’s an easy observation, but I couldn’t help but be reminded of Game of Thrones throughout Macbeth. The costumes, locations, and overall tone of the film has that same unsettling sense of violence and sexuality that I remember having from seeing Robocop as a kid.
Criterion’s newly mastered 4K blu ray presentation of Macbeth is typically beautiful. The earthy tones are well represented and the fine layer of grain feels organic. There’s no sign of digital manipulation here, and the print is clean of dirt, debris, or unruly specks. This pristine presentation gives the film an almost timeless feel. In terms of supplements, the disc includes a brand new documentary, Toil and Trouble: Making “Macbeth,”, featuring interviews with Polanski, producer Andrew Braunsberg, assistant executive producer Victor Lownes, and actors Francesca Annis and Martin Shaw. Additionally, there’s Polanski Meets Macbeth, a 1971 documentary on the making of the film. There’s also a segment of The Dick Cavett Show featuring an interview with coscreenwriter Kenneth Tynan, and a segment from a 1972 episode of Aquarius, featuring Polanski and theater director Peter Coe. — Jay C.