One of Roman Polanski's most ambitious productions to date is this
idiosyncratic reinterpretation of the darkest and most well-known of
Shakespeare's plays, Macbeth
Significantly, this was the first film that Polanski made after the
horrific murder of his pregnant wife Sharon Tate by the Manson
family. The film's raw brutality and unremitting bleakness makes
it feel like a painful exercise in catharsis, an attempt by the
director to exorcise his demons and rebuild his life. Although
the film was neither a critical or commercial success on its first
release, it is judged more favourably today, and is widely regarded as
one of the most inspired adaptations of a Shakespeare play.
Making the film was problematic and it must have appeared that the
famous curse associated with the play was working overtime.
Having failed to find an American backer for the film, Polanski turned
to his friend Victor Lownes, who persuaded Hugh Hefner, the head of
Playboy Enterprises, to bankroll the film. As it turned out, this
was to be one Hefner's worst investments. Constant delays to the
location filming caused by bad weather sent the film way over budget
and, meeting with lukewarm reception at the box office, the film ended
up making a loss of around 3.5 million dollars. You can just
imagine the execs at Playboy collectively murmurring: Is this a flop which I see before me...?
The location used for the film was the Snowdonia National Park in
Wales, and this provides an appropriately sombre setting for the film,
the barren open countryside and overcast weather contributing to its
bleak and oppressive atmosphere. Restrained performances from Jon
Finch and Francesca Annis add to film's realism, as does the
appropriate use of subjective camerawork which makes the viewer
complicit in Macbeth's crimes. And yes, the cute child actor who
plays Fleance is Keith Chegwin. Fleance is one of the few
characters in the story who isn't hacked to death (shame).
Some of the film's departures from the original text have proven to be
controversial, none more so than the weird ending. Malcolm's
final rousing speech is removed and, in its place, we see his brother
Donalbain sneaking off to look for the witches, suggesting that the
whole cycle of regicide and self-destructive paranoia is about to
One legitimate criticism of the film is its overly literal
interpretation of Shakespeare's text, illustrated by the scene in which
Macbeth sees the famous air-drawn dagger and then, later, when he is
taunted by the ghost of Banquo. By showing us images that
merely reiterate what is in the dialogue, the film sometimes appears
clunky and naive, with the result that the subtleties that lie beneath the surface of
the spoken text are often negated. Whilst he may not be the worst
filmmaker in this respect, Roman Polanski does occasionally make the
mistake of showing far more than the audience needs to see.
The film has also been criticised for its graphic violence and scenes
of an overtly sexual nature (including Lady Macbeth's nude sleepwalking
scene, which has Playboy
stamped all over it). However, Polanski should be credited for
the realism he brings to the film. By stripping back the
theatricality and opting for a naturalist style of filmmaking, he
manages to transport us into a dark medieval world that is governed by
primal forces, ambition and fear, and which is inescapably violent and
Whilst some productions of the play portray the central character as a
victim of supernatural forces, here Macbeth is very much the architect
of his own doom, a man who is propelled by his own moral failings into
an orgy of bloodletting that can only end in his own destruction.
It is of course pure coincidence that the names Macbeth and Manson should start
with the same letter...
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