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Category:    Home > Reviews > Drama > Literature > Hate > War > Murder > Revenge > Macbeth (1971/Polanski/Columbia/Sony/Criterion Collection Blu-ray)

Macbeth (1971/Polanski/Columbia/Sony/Criterion Collection Blu-ray)

Picture: B+ Sound: B Extras: B Film: B-

In the essay accompanying the Criterion Collection's release of Roman Polanski's 1971 adaptation of Macbeth, critic Terrence Rafferty writes the film wasn't received well upon its initial release ''for a variety of lousy reasons.'' Chief among them: the insistence many had to find some connection between the staging, extreme violence, and gore of the film with the 1969 murder of Sharon Tate and others by the Manson Family. Macbeth was the first film Polanski made after the murders, ''and lazy critics tended to interpret the movie's handful of gory scenes as reflections of the director's personal experience,'' Rafferty writes, ''rather than as faithful and appropriate recreations of the play's terrible violence.''

With all due respect to Rafferty, it's not a lazy observation just because you disagree with it. It's possible for the violence in Polanski's Macbeth to exist as both faithful and exorcisiary - and it does - and to dismiss the possibility so disdainfully is foolish and an obfuscation of one's responsibility as a critic. And, frankly, the only way this Macbeth remains relevant is as a grand cinematic poem of grief.

Adapted by Polanski and theater critic Kenneth Tynan, produced by Playboy's Hugh Hefner and starring Jon Finch as Macbeth and Francesca Annis as Lady Macbeth, Macbeth is a relentlessly faithful adaptation of Shakespeare's most visceral major tragedies. It follows the text so closely, in fact, that the film feels stagy. This is especially true when it moves indoors - castle yards, dining halls, bedrooms - where scenes are usually lit in such a way that shots are drained of depth and life. There's a feeling of actors occupying built sets rather than found interior environments. These moments are jarring, since the ones beyond castle walls - on body-strewn beaches, wind-swept moors, lonely mud roads - are quite beautiful.

Where the film's faithfulness diverges from staginess, though, is in the violence. The play is bloody, as is the film. But Polanski pushes things to the extreme. Take Macbeth's assassination of King Duncan. Polanski imbues these scenes with the kind of dread and brooding common to a Hammer Horror film. It helps that Macbeth's castle, where the murder takes place, looms gargoyle-like on an angular hill, backlit by a mad-scientist lightning storm. There are sumptuous moments of low-light cinematography where rooms are lit by fires and candles, giving faces and walls a warm yet apocalyptic hue. The music that strikes up when Macbeth sees the ghostly dagger leading him to Duncan's chamber - screeching brass, flitting strings - rounds out the moment's baroque sensibility.

But then the murder occurs, and it oozes gore. Macbeth repeatedly plunges his dagger into the king's chest, coating his clothes in blood. The death blow is a graphic stab through the throat that spurts more blood on to Macbeth's vestments. The next morning, when Duncan's body is discovered, so are those of his attendants - both brutally mutilated, their heads and limbs chopped off, everything lying in pools of blood. Polanski shoots this scene with the urgency and frenzy of a documentary as the rest of the characters are confronted with a shocking tableaux of violence.

It's impossible to watch these scenes today and not dwell on the murder of Sharon Tate or the brutality of Charles Manson and his Family. By all accounts, that real-life murder scene was a grisly nightmare that shook even hardened, seen-it-all detectives. And it's inconceivable that Polanski didn't have this in mind when he made Macbeth. Indeed, it's hard to watch the film and not see Polanski grapple not only with Tate's murder but the culture that bred it.

There's this strange, Aquarian vibe permeating the film that Polanski is highly critical of, which starts with the casting. Polanski put 20-somethings in the roles of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, reconceiving the characters as young, power-mad strivers. This flew in the face of Shakespearean tradition that viewed the couple as mediocre middle-aged aristocracy desperately grasping at a last chance for crowns they were never fated to wear. The youth of the two main characters fundamentally alters the tone and impulse of the play, and it allows Polanski to graft on other signifiers. Macbeth, the murderer and butcher who upends the natural order with psychotic delusions of grandeur, wears long hair and a giant medallion around his next designating him the Thane of Gondor. Macduff (Terence Bayler), the hero who restores order, meanwhile looks more like Elliott Gould circa M*A*S*H: shaggy and loose, but decidedly not a hippie and relatively conservative in comparison to Macbeth.

Then there are the witches. The characters are mere supernatural catalysts in the play, but under Polanski's direction they become malignant stand-ins for the commune culture of the late '60s. The witches are of the earth; they're dirty, lewd, degenerates; they meet, naked, in secret covens where they concoct mind-altering psychotropic potions; they stand opposed to Christianity, indeed all religion; they are agents of doom, setting Macbeth on his bloody path murderous self-gratification - and Polanski has nothing but contempt for them. It doesn't take much to read a broader condemnation of the unwashed hippies, living in the deserts and hills of Southern California, that spawned Manson and his followers.

This all sort of crescendos in the immensely troubling and horrifying scene where soldiers, at Macbeth's direction, invade Macduff's castle. They rape Macduff's servants, murder his son, and, it's implied, rape and murder his wife. The rank depravity on display here is brutal and visceral, as it should be. But it also casts Macbeth in the Manson role, sending his messengers of chaos out to a manse to wreak wholesale slaughter. It's the second time in the film that Polanski seemingly restages the Tate murder, and it's the moment where he fully divests himself (and us) from any sort of empathy for Macbeth (if any ever existed) and makes his most decisive condemnation of the Age of Aquarius.

With scenes like that in mind, it's difficult for me to fathom how someone can watch Macbeth, either today or in 1971, and not walk away feeling like they just witnessed a very public display of grief management. Perhaps that comes with Polanski directing the film. But, remember, he chose this story - this bloody, violent tragedy - to be the first one he told after Tate's murder. That can't be a coincidence. And any insinuation that it's less than fair to consider the very raw pain permeating the making of the film when discussing it or considering its merits is, at best, negligent. To excise Polanski's circumstances from his Macbeth does both him and the film a disservice, to say nothing of viewers. Indeed, that element imbues the film with an energy and potency that elevates it above mere adaptation. Without it, Macbeth is just another Shakespeare movie; with it, the film is a work of art.

As you would expect from a Criterion release, its Macbeth Blu-ray is top of the line.

The new 4K digital restoration, overseen by Polanski, is sumptuous from original 35mm camera elements and even excellent 35mm reversal color materials, as shot with the Todd-AO 35 anamorphic lenses that tend to be underrated by legendary Director of Photography Gilbert Taylor, B.S.C. (Polanski's Repulsion and Cul-De-Sac, Dr. Strangelove, the original Star Wars, Hitchcock's Frenzy), presented here in 2.35 X 1, 1080p digital High Definition. Those low-light moments in castles are beautiful, as are many of the sweeping sun-drenched vistas and dusky battlefields. Some points felt a little soft or washed out, but there weren't so many as to be distracting. And there seemed to be little, if any, visible grain.

On the audio side, the film is dialogue driven with some moments of sword-clanging action. In other words, it doesn't really stretch the limits of home theater systems. Still, the 3.0 surround DTS-HD MA (Master Audio) lossless track sounds great. Voices are crisp and clear, and background elements - boots scraping on stone and wood, swords being unsheathed, rustling trees, the squishy hustle bustle of serfs working in muddy castle lands - are wonderfully rendered.

In terms of extras, there are a lot here: Toil and Trouble: Making ''Macbeth'' - a new documentary that features interviews with Polanski and Annis, among others; a 1971 documentary about the film, Polanski Meets Macbeth; a 1971 interview with Tynan from an episode of The Dick Cavett Show; a segment from a 1972 episode of the British TV show Aquarius featuring interviews with Polanski and theater director Peter Coe; trailers; and Rafferty's essay in the booklet. Your mileage with these extras will depend on how into the film you are. They offer interesting insight into the making of the film and how Polanski and Tynan came to it. There's not a lot of earth-shaking material here, but it does provide value context for the film.

- Dante A. Ciampaglia


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