Macbeth (1971) | Criterion Collection UK

April 17th, 2016
Author: Meredith Taylor

Director: Roman Polanski | Writers: Kenneth Tynan/Roman Polanski

Cast: Jon Finch, Francesca Annis, Martin Shaw, Terence Bayler, Nicholas Selby, Stephan Chase

140min  Drama

Who better to direct The Tragedy of Macbeth than Roman Polanski, bringing his customary nihilism to the famous Scottish play: his is an ambitious production but not amongst his best, despite collaboration from Kenneth Tynan on the script. The action opens on a desolate shoreline where young nobleman Macbeth (Jon Finch) is returning from battle, three witches are seen casting their spells in the watery half light of a wintery dusk.  The locations were infact Porthmadog and Northumberland but they absolutely conjure up the essence of the story. Most of film is set in dank and dripping moorland or inside shivering castles where the additional effect of howling winds add to the sense of unease – not even blazing open fires can warm this cruel and hopeless saga. Polanski, deeply effected by the recent violent murder of his lover Sharon Tate, clearly made his film more violent than the play (lines such as “Untimely ripped from his mother’s womb” seem particularly cruel and apt) but it could equally have echoed his experiences in Krakow. In any event, Polanski was always going to make a grisly rendering of Shakespeare’s brutal masterpiece. This is very much Polanski’s version: he added a final scene, a variation from the Shakespeare play – where Donalbain is seen skulking off to the Witches’ hideout. This is the sting in the tail, the classic Polanski unhappy ending; offering no hope for redemption. The use of a discordant score from the folk band Third Ear and Gil Taylor’s stunningly photographed scenic set pieces add grim redolence to proceedings and the siege scenes are particularly evocative of doom. Casting off screen lovers Francesca Annis and Jon Finch as the Macbeths, their dark good looks and chemistry permeate the drama. A superb performance from Francesca Annis makes it easy to see how a man can be led to his demise by his own inflated ego and the sexual obsession for a woman who feeds his lust for power (and indeed, her own), as she does as Lady Macbeth here.

In the event, neither of these characters possesses the moral fibre consistent with their regal stature: and this is why the story so perfectly fits into Polanski’s body of work: the professionals seen wanting, brought down by their own petty insecurities. Macbeth is seen as a figure worthy of disdain, a man hoisted by his own petard; a ‘falling King’, rather than a ‘fallen’ one. The film was not a commercial success, and although capable and atmospheric, lacks the precision and perfection of his earlier works, Knife in The Water and Repulsion. MT


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