• Reviewed by: Shane Buettner
  • Review Date: Oct 08, 2014
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Roman Polanski

Release Date(s)

1971 (September 23, 2014)


Columbia Pictures (Criterion - Spine #726)
  • Film/Program Grade: A-
  • Video Grade: B+
  • Audio Grade: C-
  • Extras Grade: B

Macbeth (Criterion Blu-ray Disc)



“Be bloody, bold and resolute …” is one Macbeth’s most memorable lines, and it’s also an apt description of director Roman Polanski’s approach to his 1971 adaptation of Shakespeare’s brutal play on power politics in Scotland. Like so many of the controversial auteur’s films, it’s an artistically powerful film that’s overshadowed by the director’s tumultuous life and times (unfairly in this case). Released three years after his Hollywood breakout Rosemary’s Baby, and three years before his masterpiece Chinatown, Macbeth is the film Polanski chose as his first following the murder of his (8 ½ months) pregnant wife Sharon Tate by the Manson Family. It’s a fascinating case of art imitating life and that shattering event leaves an indelible imprint on every frame that appears on screen of this gloomy, ferocious adaptation of Shakespeare’s bloodiest work.

The outlines of Shakespeare’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth” are familiar to all: Macbeth the conquering hero/warlord is beloved by his peers and rewarded by King Duncan for suppressing rebellion. But Macbeth’s inner ambitions are inflamed when three witches confront him with a vision of his ascension to the throne. He and Lady Macbeth, madly in love, act out their passion, murdering the King and usurping the throne. That murder begets another and another, each more grisly and dishonorable than the last, culminating in the slaughter of Macduff’s wife and children, snuffing the bloodline of another potential rival to the throne. By play’s end Macbeth and Lady Macbeth succumb to guilt and madness. Macbeth is undone by reckless hubris after misinterpreting a second witchy vision and Lady Macbeth lies in a crumpled suicidal heap, ceaselessly cleansing her hands of guilt that will never wash away.    

While smaller in scope and more blunt than many of the Bard’s works, many of the play’s subtexts are strikingly relevant to modern audiences in spite of the medieval setting. The ruin of Macbeth remains the most absorbing example of power corrupting and absolute power corrupting absolutely in literature or cinema. The narrative’s treatment of women is also complicated. Lady Macbeth is an icon of feminine power and strength in devising the schemes that vault her husband to the throne and providing the backbone he needs to pull it off. But she’s mentally punished and eventually totally destroyed for her ambitions, exercisable only though her husband in these times, and the narrative lays much in the way of blame for Macbeth’s tragic fate at the feet of feminine intuition in the ghastly form of the witches and their visions.    

Polanski’s Macbeth is cinematic but unrelenting, never feeling at all like a filmed stage play and never offering the audience refuge by taking the violence off screen. Polanski’s Scotland is mired in foreboding atmosphere, with a spare, discordant musical score that’s unsettling enough to accompany a horror film. It’s briskly paced by Shakespearean standards even at 2 hrs and 20 minutes, and favors startling violence and physicality over verbal nuance.

Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, played by Jon Finch and Francesca Annis, are young and beautiful, adding sex appeal as well as a deeper sense of squandered potential. Finch is physically formidable (Macbeth’s clearly a badass in battle) and is excellent in revealing Macbeth’s transformation from initial reticence at shedding innocent blood to haunted by the ghosts of guilt to finally descending into unrepentant, murderous paranoia. Finch’s brooding but charismatic Macbeth is clearly an echo of Charles Manson and his followers as the King’s court comes to reflect the throne, comprised of common criminals, rapists and robbers. When all is lost, Macbeth’s despair is especially profound as this timeless, monumental summation is delivered by Finch: “Life’s but a walking shadow … a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Polanski and co-writer Kenneth Tynan end the already bleak film with a wrinkle of their own. Duncan’s son Malcolm, having rightfully ascended to the throne, is seen visiting the witches who planted seeds of Macbeth’s demise, leaving us with the sense that the bloodshed and treachery we’ve just witnessed is doomed to repeat.

Criterion’s Blu-ray is sourced from a new 4K transfer and restoration and the results are mostly outstanding, with just a few early scenes seemingly hampered by the elements available (credited by Criterion as the original camera negative and a “color reversal internegative”). Depth and color saturation are impressive and film-like in texture, but certainly sharp enough to reveal the limitations of the makeup effects of the era. There are many dimly lit scenes and shadow detail and contrast are consistently superb. The DTS-HD MA encoded 3.0 Surround soundtrack is credited as coming from a “35mm 3-track composite LCR magnetic element,” which sounds like the magnetic stripe from a film print. Whatever the source the result is just serviceable with the exception of dialog being swamped by louder, and rather brittle sounding effects. While called out as “3.0 Surround” there’s virtually nothing in the way of discernible rear soundfield activity.

The gem in Criterion’s supplements is the new, one-hour long documentary Toil and Trouble: Making Macbeth, which features insightful interviews with Polanski, producer Andrew Braunsberg and especially actors Francesca Annis and Martin Shaw (Banquo). Their tales of the film’s provenance and production are strong, as are the suppositions of why the film didn’t resonate in the US in the wake of Polanski’s off-screen tragedy, perhaps foreshadowing the director’s later entanglements. Trailers and other vintage pieces are included but of marginal interest.

Polanski’s Macbeth has real force and substance as the most violent and kinetic Shakespearean adaption ever put on film, and it’s an overlooked minor classic in the Polanski canon. The paring of the dialog to its essence and emphasis on youth, passion and atmosphere is masterfully executed and bracing; this is not your father’s (or even Olivier’s) Shakespeare. Criterion’s Blu-ray has done right by the material in every respect, which is recommended without reservation.

- Shane Buettner  

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