We’re going to see a production of Macbeth next week (with Conleth Hill and Frances McDormand), so I thought it would be a good time to watch this movie, one of my favorite Shakespeare films from way back when. Honestly, I’m not sure I’d seen it since it came out, but it made such an impression on me that I’ve always listed it among the best film adaptations of Shakespeare.
Much is made ... too much, I think ... of how Macbeth was Polanski’s first film after the Sharon Tate massacre. This led many critics to assume the extreme violence in the movie was motivated by Polanski’s recent history. Polanski has refuted this, although he does note that one scene was informed by an event from his past: the slaughter of Macduff’s family is drawn from his memory of SS officers in the Krakow ghetto.
Given the amount of extreme violence in some movies today, Macbeth might seem almost tame. And some people point out that Macbeth is a violent play ... you can’t blame Polanski for that. But one thing that makes Macbeth such a good movie is that Polanski treats it as just that, a movie. Show, don’t tell. So, to give a few examples:
- In the play, we learn of the execution of Cawdor via a second-hand report (this is where the line “nothing in his life became him like the leaving it”). In the movie we see his execution.
- Duncan’s murder. In the play, one scene ends with Macbeth leaving the scene on his way to kill Duncan. In the next scene, he tells Lady Macbeth “I have done the deed.” In the movie, we see Macbeth murder Duncan.
- In the play, Macduff’s son dies onstage, everything else happens off stage. In the movie, we see much of the killing, and some rape as well.
Pauline Kael famously had a reputation for having a strong stomach for on-screen violence, but in a 1972 interview, she said “The movie that shocked me most deeply was Polanski’s Macbeth. The murder of Lady Macduff, the torn bodies scattered around, the pieces of children’s bodies, like a chicken yard, the knives constantly going into flesh had me shaking afterward. I felt numb. When I came home my daughter thought I’d been mugged.”
It is the intensity of the violence that affects the audience. But even when Polanski shows rather than tells, he isn’t adding anything to the play.
I realize it’s impossible to treat any film adaptation of Shakespeare without constant references to the source material. But I think this Macbeth is better understood if we think of it, not as a Shakespeare play, but as a Polanski movie. While some might question his decisions, he isn’t working randomly here. He has a vision of the film he wants to make. The cinematography, the dialogue, the acting, the setting, and yes, the violence, are all in service to Roman Polanski’s movie.
When the film came out, it was famous for being a “Playboy Production”, with Hugh Hefner getting an executive producer credit. When Francesca Annis performed Lady Macbeth’s famous “out damned spot” sleepwalking scene in the nude, Hefner got the blame. (Polanski just said people slept in the nude in those days.) Voyeurs were likely disappointed ... there was Annis’ ass, and there were a lot of very old naked witches, but that was it.
Seeing it now, more than 40 years after it came out, I found that it remains one of my favorite “Shakespeare films”. Ironically, one I like better is Throne of Blood, Kurosawa’s samurai version of the same story. 9/10.