Purists beware, Roman Polanski and Kenneth Tynan have cut, rearranged, and shaped Shakespeare's material to make a MOVIE! And what a grand film they created. Flowingly cinematic, with stunning location filming and superb cinematography the many cuts allow for a smooth narration without sacrificing the gut and heart of the play.
There was much controversy when this film debuted, probably due to it being financed and produced by Hugh Hefner and Playboy, and probably because it was unblinkingly bloody upfront (although the blood is in the play, much of it is naturally offstage), and because of nudity in several key scenes (including the witches....all those old nude crones, while factually correct, no doubt upset many). Today, these seem like perfectly reasonable choices. The film is relentless and remorseless, as befits the story. I don't know what part of Polanski's personal tragedy had any part in his work here, but the direction is excellent. Finch and Anis are fine as the murderous Laird and his Lady, as is the rest of the cast.
If you want the play, see the play. If you want a stimulating and fully realized CINEMATIC treatment of Shakespeare's great themes of greed, ambition, murder, guilt and destiny, see this finely produced, directed, and acted work. Well worthwhile.
on March 26, 2000
Wow! The liberties Polanski has taken with the Bard's classic have really floored me. This is truly a revelation. Our English teacher showed us this after we had completed our studies on the play, and I wasn't expecting a film half as good as this one. The movie has made waves for it's gore, violence, bleakness ( hey, it's a tragedy!), and Lady Macbeth's nude sleepwalking scene, but it's all done by a man who is totally in tune with what Shakespeare was trying to get accross. Although some scenes/lines have been dropped from this adaptation (such as Lady Macbeth telling Macbeth she would bash her baby's brains out if she had given her word to do so, or the rather humorous relay between Macduff and Malcom), and some things have been slightly altered (such as when Macbeth laments that his wife should bring forth men-children only, is now an Aside), but it all fits together so well that it is barely noticable (although I did slightly miss them). Every scene from the play has been brought to beautiful life. Moments like the exchange between Banquo and Macbeth, while Lady Macbeth is drugging Duncan's gaurds, are highly inventive and imaginative. As well, I have never been so entertained by the porter in any adaptation of Macbeth before! I could go on and on, yet I am limited to only 1000 words in this review, which is not enough by any stretch of the imagination to review this fine film. Do yourself a favour and see this movie, those of you who know Macbeth will fall in love with this vivid re-telling of Shakespeares tragedy, and make new fans out of the un-initiated. Oh, I almost forgot, the last scene is one of the most unexpected and suprizing endings I have ever seen, and further solidifies Polanski's brilliance here. Truly one for the ages. A classic.
on March 5, 2002
Please ignore the poorly thought out review on this page. Anyone with either a passing interest in Shakespeare or an appreciation of film should seek this out now. Polanski, avoiding the trap so many other filmmakers fall into, makes a film based on Macbeth, not merely recording a performance of the play. He has crafted a breathlessly paced film, making very reasonable cuts in the text in order to bring the film in under 2½ hours. I have seen much longer versions that had no grasp of the play at all.
Polanski also wisely chose not to use well-known stars for the major roles; instead utilizing some of the best (and youngest) British stage actors of the time. Jon Finch and Francesca Annis perfectly capture the most emotionally wrenched marriage ever, without the moustache twirling that finds its way into Shakespeare film adaptations too often. This film is dark, muddy, and violent; it is not intended for children. I have to assume that the people who complain about the violence in the film have never actually read the play. And I hope, for the sake of their own sanity, they steer clear of Titus Andronicus, Richard III, Julius Caesar, Othello, and if beheadings put a bee in your bonnet, beware Cymbeline!
... This is a raw, passionate telling of one of the great fictional works in the English language, by one of the great filmmakers of our time. But wait for the wide-screen DVD.
on September 10, 2000
This movie is violent and brutal, sparing the audience none of the blood that's implied in the play and adding some gratuitous nudity to boot. If you read the play in high school English class, you're in for a shock or seven with this version.
But I think that this is how Shakespeare would have made a movie. He certainly didn't direct his plays the way they're performed today, all mannered diction and high art. He put in plenty of dirty jokes for the groundlings, lots of sensationalist death and destruction. Shakespeare's plays were intended to sell as many tickets as possible; if Lady Macbeth wasn't played by a man back then, he probably would have wanted her sleepwalking nude as she does in this film.
Polanski has done an excellent job of rescuing "Macbeth" from the constrictions of "literature" and making it shake its moneymaker, as it were. If you can handle some gore and nudity, You're in for a heck of a ride.
on October 29, 2003
William Shakespeare's (1564 to 1616) tragic play of "Macbeth" (written circa 1606) is set in an atmosphere that's visually dark. There is only one brief moment of sunlight, just after King Duncan's murder by Macbeth. The rest of the play takes place in shadows, in rain, in storms, or in the middle of the night. Because the play is so short (it is, in fact, Shakespeare's shortest tragic play), it resembles a nightmare that's filled with witches, prophesies, ghosts, the fantastical, bloody murder, suicide, paranoia, and dread.
Director Roman Polanski's "Macbeth" captures all this on film, especially the bleak atmosphere. But there is even more since Polanski makes shrewd decisions when rearranging, eliminating, and embellishing scenes from the original play but he retains Shakespeare's beautiful language as originally written.
We are shown Duncan's (Nicolas Selby) bloody murder by Macbeth (Jon Finch) and how he tries to cover up his crime by hacking up Duncan's guards. His ordered killing of Banquo (Martin Shaw) is also shown. Thus we absolutely believe Macbeth when he utters, "I am in blood / Stepped in so far, that, should I wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o'er."
Finch and Francesca Annis (who plays Lady Macbeth) make an attractive couple who are not too old to be ambitious. Lady Macbeth's beauty convinces us that she could seduce a man to kill a king, and from one scene to the next, Finch's face hardens, tracing his transformation from hero to hell-hound whereas Annis' face softens from shrewd schemer to suicidal sleepwalker.
The short Porter Scene just after Duncan's murder is fun to watch. It effectively provides some comic relief. And the final sword scene between Macbeth and Macduff (Terence Bayler) is thrilling and exciting. You can see Macbeth's determination to win this duel (even though he has lost everything else) when he shouts, "Lay on Macduff / And damn'd be him that cries 'Hold, enough!'"
Even though this is a dark play, the scenery and sets are visually stunning. (The filming was at Shepperton Studios in London, England.) As well, the strong, Scottish music that occasionally plays in the background reminds us that we are watching a Scottish play.
Polanski adds little touches throughout the play to make it easier to understand and to heighten dramatic effect. My favorite is his chilling non-Shakespearean touch at the end. Just after Macbeth is killed and the tyranny of his reign is finally over, the scene shifts to Duncan's second son as he "accidentally" encounters the three weird sisters or witches.
THE BOTTOM LINE:
This movie is a worthy addition to the Bard's cinematic canon.
(1971; 2hr, 20 min; wide screen; 28 scenes)
<<Stephen Pletko, London, Ontario, Canada>>
on September 20, 1999
Polanski's Macbeth is highly successful in resisting the modern tendency to present Macbeth solely through a pychological lens. Whether intended or not, this film remains more true to the historical Shakespeare in that this Macbeth is motivated by opportunity, impulse, greed and power. Furthermore, through it's sensual treatment of necromancy, the witches have reclaimed their historical relevance to the play and culture of the times, while most modern versions have tended to dismiss the witches as only a babbling chorus for Macbeth's madness. (I highly recommend reading Witches & Jesuits: Shakespeare's Macbeth by Garry Willis)
on August 21, 1999
Macbeth may be studied in school by children, but this movie goes beyond what most children would expect of Shakespeare. Compared to the Expressionistic Orson Welles version (1948), this version is completely in-your-face and doesn't flinch from showing cruelty close up. The killing scenes are enough to make you cover your eyes, although it's hard to imagine they are also in the play itself. For young people who think Shakespeare is boring, this is the film to show them, even if it isn't as emotional and poetic as the Welles version. Be warned, however, don't watch this on an empty stomach.
on January 17, 1999
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 bruvura piece of moviemaking and can be best appreciated as such. After all, this is not really Shakespeare per se but a Polanski film: the prevailing themes of witchcraft, rampant paranoia, and finally triumphant evil pick up right where "Rosemary's Baby" left off. And life is certainly nasty, brutish, and short in this movie--Shakespeare's poetry takes 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 staging the numerous murders here as he did in "Repulsion." 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 set-pieces. 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 so stepped in blood..." 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. 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's 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 little urchin has neither the skill nor the presence to adequately bring off one of Shakespeare's most formidable women. Annis's 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. 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 overstates his case.
on December 15, 2002
I remember the controversy attending the release of this film, which focused on two things: the nudity, which struck some reviewers as a gratuitous imposition by the producer, Hugh Hefner (although the famous nude sleepwalking scene was in the Polanski-Tynan script well before Playboy's involvement in the picture), and the gobbets of blood, which to some seemed a needless genuflection to the Bonnie and Clyde-Wild Bunch trend toward gore in action cinema. Thirty years later, these controversies seems silly. This is simply an extremely well-staged and filmed version of a play everyone knows, which has been reconceived by Roman Polanski (when he was still hot) for film and loaded with genuinely cinematic values--from the dramatic Welsh locations to interesting camera movement and jump-cut editing to the (overdone) use of voice-overs in the drama's many soliloquies.
As for the criticisms of the early 1970s, Macbeth is, after all, a play with a substantial sexual undertow, and even when staged in the 17th century, it was very, very bloody. The language cries "blood!" and if the production doesn't show it, the words seem false. What Polanski does, of course, is to show things, with those freshets of blood for emphasis, that the Bard transacted off stage. Jon Finch, who American audiences might know best from Hitchcock's Frenzy, and Francesca Annis, never more beautiful, compel attention as youthful Laird and Lady. Remember that the Macbeths are Shakespeare's most happily married couple: based on these performances, I can believe this. The adaptation is very straightforward and runs some 2 hours and 20 minutes; as Macbeth is one of the shortest plays in the Shakespearean oeuvre, you get a lot of Bard for the Buck; most of it is there--I didn't do a simultaneous textual comparison--albeit in truncated form from time to time.
If I were rating this film on the basis of performances and production alone, I'd give it a straight five. It is stunning and, to my mind, among the handful of genuinely compelling Shakespeare films, along with Branagh's Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing and both Olivier's and McKellen's Richard III. (I also love Derek Jacobi's Hamlet in the BBC series.) Polanski makes uncommonly sensible directorial choices, with two exceptions: the climactic duel between Macbeth and Macduff goes on entirely, even comically, too long (although the preceding scenes--in which Macbeth the Invincible strides through the army of his foes like Sauron in the Battle for Middle Earth--and the following--when Macbeth's severed head makes an eerie, even hallucinogenic (yes, this was the '70s) progression though the Dunsinane courtyard on its way to the inevitable pike--are stunningly mounted. And the excessive use of voice-over consigns many of Macbeth's greatest speeches to "thought"--fine, of course, soliloquy does indeed represent "thought," and film is the medium that can create the requisite illusion--but I, for one, nevertheless longed to see and hear these immortal words properly "acted" and intoned with lips a-flapping.
I dock the VHS version a star for its muffled sound--cinematic or no, Shakespeare is nothing without the glorious language--and would recommend, sight unseen and sound unheard, the DVD version, which has absolutely no extras to commend itself but must have clearer sound and is in full widescreen, to boot, making it therefore by definition preferable to the VHS (unless, like me, you were able to cop a VHS bargain).
There are multitudes of Macbeth adaptations, but this one is my go-to. It may not be the most loyal to the original play, but it still manages to do everything right and provide a new experience for the viewer. I was thrilled to see that Criterion picked it up and gave it their famous restoration.
The blu ray picture and sound quality is stunning. It doesn't matter how many times you've seen it before, 1080p this perfect makes a world of difference. I don't think I've ever seen such dark tones pop so vividly. Ominous clouds and chainmail armor dazzle the screen with unbelievable clarity. The audio is rich, immersive and foreboding. The whole experience is surreal and fantastic. Shakespeare would be proud.
OVERALL: Just because this is an 'older' movie doesn't mean that a fine HD restoration is pointless. Obviously the original film quality provided excellent material for Criterion to transfer onto Blu Ray. The outcome is a home video release like no generation has ever seen before. I highly, highly recommend it.