The Tragedy of Macbeth (1971)
aka: Macbeth
A film directed by Roman Polanski

Genre: Drama / History

Film Review

The Tragedy of Macbeth photo
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 repeat itself.

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 unjust.

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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Victorious in battle, the warriors Macbeth and Banquo are returning to their home in Scotland when they are met by three strange hags who greet them with fantastic prophesies...
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Film Credits

Directed by Roman Polanski
Starring: Jon Finch, Francesca Annis, Martin Shaw, Terence Bayler, John Stride, Nicholas Selby, Stephan Chase, Paul Shelley, Maisie MacFarquhar, Elsie Taylor
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