Polanski’s interpretation of Macbeth begins with a cold and sparse shot of a beach where we are introduced to the three witches, one of whom is burying a noose. Unusually the first line of dialogue is “Fair is foul and foul is fair / Hover through the fog and filthy air.” This couplet usually closes the scene in stage adaptations and this change serves to set the tone for this version of the Scottish play. Filthy and foul are definitely adjectives I would use to describe the film. From the overall aesthetic, which is miserable and grey, to the subject matter that is explored in the play itself, this is a pretty bleak movie.
Polanski also heavily cut the text for this version, which has both positive and negative effects to the script. His interpretation of the character of Lady Macbeth is strangely sexually overt, which for me is a bit jarring after seeing the 2014 NTL production with the tremendous Alex Kingston, who delivered a power house performance and completely stole the spotlight from leading man Kenneth Branagh.
Lady Macbeth is played by Francesca Annis, who at the time was 26 years old and very young to play a character that is typically played by women at least 20 years her senior. In the famous scene where the cunning Lady Macbeth is unable to cleanse her hands of imaginary blood, Annis is completely nude (I do wonder if this is because the film was produced by Playboy, yes Playboy…). It gives the character an unfamiliar fragility and a sense of helplessness. This scene is always about her unravelling after the events of the past few hours but the pity I felt for her was something I have never felt towards this strong, manipulative and courageous character.
As for Macbeth, played by Jon Finch, some of his direction is also questionable. Because it is a film and NOT a play there are certain subtleties that seem to be forgotten. I have always felt when watching the play that we’re supposed to identify with Macbeth to a point and unravel with him. Macbeth, to me anyway, has always been a slightly sympathetic character. His ambition is encouraged by those around him as he spirals out of control, and he’s as ignorant to the horrors that await him as much as we, the audience, are. In this retelling however, the addition of actually seeing Macbeth kill Duncan, an event Shakespeare has happen off stage, changes your opinion of him quickly and makes it very hard to continue on this journey with him. It also reduces the shock value of the child’s murder later in the play. Also, commonly in stage performances, the dagger Macbeth sees before him is in his mind, we the audience, do not see it. The dodgy 1970s graphic of a dagger literally leading Macbeth away completely ruins this character plot point, as it echoes back to bad fantasy films that were produced at the time.
This is a really bloody film too, bookended by battle scenes and probably quite shocking by 1970s cinemagoer’s standards, which is what was blamed for its poor reviews at the time. In 2016 however, this realism brings some punch back to the murders and battle scenes providing genuinely exhilarating scenes that still hold up today.
This version of Macbeth has been rereleased as part of The Criterion Collection and the disk now includes additional features that have been approved by the director. These include two documentaries, extra interviews from various 1970’s television show and trailers. I only had time to watch the film itself and one of the documentaries, Toil and Trouble. It’s an interesting addition and shows the issues that come along with a large-scale production like this and give you a rare insight into Polanski’s process; I imagine it would be an interesting documentary for anyone studying theatre adaptations.
If you’re interested in Shakespeare adaptations or are a Polanski fan I would recommend watching this. If, however, you’re looking for a solid representation of the Macbeth play, this isn’t for you.