It’s probably not a surprise that I’m a fan of Shakespeare. I’m an English teacher and a voracious reader, and it’s hard to be either of those things and not at least love the Bard a little. And while I’d never argue that I’m an expert in Shakespeare, I’ve read a lot of them, and taught more than a few. And of them all, Macbeth is my all-time favorite play – a horrific tale of murder, guilt, blood, and violence. And while there are some great versions out there (the recent Fassbinder version was superb, and of course, Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood is incredible), I’ve always felt – and continue to feel – that it’s never been done better than Roman Polanski did it in 1971. In Polanski’s able directorial hands, the play comes to dark, grim life – the violence is visceral, the horrors bleak, the landscape reflective of the shadowy deeds taking place.
It’s not a coincidence that this version of the play so embraces the story’s darker aspects. Polanski’s life is one filled with violence, from his childhood experiences with the Nazis to the loss of his wife at the hands of the Manson family, and it’s clear that those experiences are finding some outlet in the grim violence depicted on screen here. Polanski never lets us forget how truly horrific Macbeth’s actions are, and by the time he decides to send Macduff a message, we realize that he’s crossing lines that can never be uncrossed. In Polanski’s hands, it doesn’t feel gratuitous, or excessive – but it does feel disturbing. (Indeed, you could hear a pin drop in my classes as we watched these sections, and you could feel their opinions of Macbeth shifting as his crimes became truly monstrous.)
More than that, though, Polanski lets his actors bring the characters to vivid life. Jon Finch is superb as Macbeth, capturing his fear and unease in the early going, and slowly transitioning to the cocky, swaggering tyrant of the final act. Francesca Annis does Lady Macbeth proud, slowly peeling back the layers of external confidence to show the vulnerable core that she’s been hiding for so long. And even the supporting cast does the material right; Terence Bayler makes Macduff human beyond his role in the plot (something that the play on its own doesn’t always do), and John Stride turns the minor part of Ross into something fascinating – a scheming, careful survivor, who follows Macbeth as long as is humanly possible.
Indeed, Polanski remains faithful to Shakespeare’s text to a superb degree, but it’s his additions to the play’s margins that truly haunt, as he embraces the play’s dark themes and ideas and takes them to their extremes. Whether it’s depicting violence on “stage”, answering lingering questions about what happens to the murderers Macbeth hires, or that disquieting epilogue that he adds, Polanski and Kenneth Tynan flesh out the world of the play, turning its “tale of sound and fury, signifying nothing” into a bleak mediation on power, corruption, violence, and guilt. And from the dark lighting to the rainy landscapes, from the blood-soaked staging to the brutal, violent climax (which I love – I know there are those who knock the final fight, but I love its knock-down, no-holds-barred style), it follows the ideas and spirit of the play to its logical outcome, and creates a wholly riveting, if disquieting, vision. It’s one of my all-time favorite Shakespeare films, and a testament to the power of the Bard’s magnificent play. (And if you doubt that, come with me next time I win over a bunch of 21st century high school students and make them eager to know what’s happening next, and watch as they get invested, involved, and riveted by this production.)