Roman Polanski imbues his unflinchingly violent adaptation of William Shakespeare’s tragedy of ruthless ambition and murder in medieval Scotland with grit and dramatic intensity. Jon Finch and Francesca Annis are charged with fury and sex appeal as a decorated warrior rising in the ranks and his driven wife, scheming together to take the throne by any means. Coadapted by Polanski and the great theater critic and dramaturge Kenneth Tynan, and shot against a series of stunning, stark British Isle landscapes, this version of 'Macbeth' is among the most atmospheric and authentic of all Shakespeare films.
"What's done cannot be undone."
The all-encompassing allure of power can be an irresistible temptation. Overwhelmed by seductive promises of wealth, prestige, and control, human beings can become blinded by whispering ambition -- so much so, that they lose all sight over the morality of their actions. But what of guilt? What happens after the deed is done? When they are forced to face the double-edged spoils of their transgressions? The Bard is well known for his potent tragedies, and with 'Macbeth,' Shakespeare crafts one of his most defining masterpieces -- weaving a timeless tale about corruption and maddening shame. And through arresting visual style, director Roman Polanksi brings all of the legendary playwright's stirring words to the screen, giving commanding cinematic form to both the emotional and physical violence of the story. Indeed, brutality has rarely even been so lyrical… or stained red with blood.
Adapted from William Shakespeare's play, the film focuses on a Scottish general named Macbeth (Jon Finch). After winning a battle against traitorous enemies, Macbeth stumbles upon three witches who prophesize that he shall become the next king. Tempted by this flattering prediction and spurred on by his ambitious wife (Francesca Annis), Macbeth soon hatches a plan to kill the current monarch in order to take his place. But murder is only the beginning for this power-hungry couple, and soon the guilt of their deadly actions begins to consume them.
Though some elements of the plot and dialogue have been truncated, expanded upon, or otherwise altered, the script from Polanksi and co-writer Kenneth Tynan keeps most of the original text intact. With that said, some aspects of the director's interpretation differs notably from other adaptations. While the actors still speak in Shakespeare's poetic verse, Polanski calls for a comparatively naturalistic style of delivery. Going along with this, the majority of the characters' various soliloquies are not actually spoken aloud on-screen. Instead, these speeches are presented as voiceover narration. Given that they are meant to be interpreted as inner monologues on the stage anyway, this choice makes sense and works fairly well cinematically. On the other hand, watching the actors simply stand around brooding while we hear their disembodied recitals does lead to a slight disconnect between their vocal and physical performances that can be distracting.
Extended navel-gazing aside, the acting is very strong and the ensemble does a great job of inhabiting their iconic characters. While Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are traditionally played by older actors, here Polanski opts to cast the roles with younger performers. This helps to emphasize the duo's youthful ambition. As the title character, Jon Finch offers a fitting balance between battlefield poise, ruthless spite, and vulnerable uncertainty. The actor handles Macbeth's initial moral quandary well, and his subsequent mental and emotional deterioration is conveyed with palpable guilt. Likewise, the character's third act transition into an almost god-like force oozes with appropriate hubris and detachment -- and whether you're rooting for or against him, the actor evokes a certain "bad-ass" quality that is surprisingly rousing.
As the powerful woman behind this torn man, Francesca Annis offers an effective yet rather atypical take on Lady Macbeth. Many actresses and directors usually choose to play up the character's forceful and manipulative ambition through stern and often cold performances. In contrast, Annis delivers a decidedly gentler and sensitive interpretation. Rather than ruthless and calculating, her desire to kill the king is conveyed through almost childlike excitement. Similarly, when Macbeth initially changes his mind about the murder, she reacts with tearful disappointment, not bitter resentment. On the one hand, this more fragile demeanor makes Lady Macbeth seem less in control of her husband, but on the other hand, it also makes her more sympathetic, especially as she starts to crumble under the weight of her sins. Though I'm still not totally sold on this particular departure, Annis' approach proves to be very affecting.
Perhaps even more distressing than the characters' inner turmoil, is Polanski's brutal depiction of on-screen violence. Not afraid to explicitly show what many directors choose to merely imply, the movie does not shy away from bloody and disturbing imagery, fully exposing the unsettling realities of murder. And though stabbings and beheadings abound, the carnage is never truly sensationalized. Sure, the climactic fight scene is quite thrilling, but there is real weight to every blow and agonizing death, perfectly complementing the emotional drama with terrifying bloodshed. To this point, there are aspects of the production that almost start to feel like a Shakespearian horror film, turning gaping wounds, ghostly hallucinations, and cackling witches into genuinely spine-tingling imagery.
Beyond its more graphic elements, the film's style maintains a gloomy but lyrical quality. Polanski uses many wide shots and extended takes. This creates a painterly aesthetic that allows the actors to gradually build their performances uninterrupted by cuts while the reframing camera moves along with the oscillating beats of the drama. Despite the inherently dialogue driven nature of Shakespeare's play, Polanski adapts the text in a visually engaging manner, fully translating the stage production into an absorbing piece of cinema that enhances the narrative's subtext and emotions through images. Likewise, the dissonant score by The Third Ear Band and eerie sound design also help to maintain the movie's unnerving atmosphere.
From a purely physical standpoint, the act of murder really couldn't be any simpler. But from a psychological perspective, the deed is much harder to bear, and these costly tolls on the mind and soul go on to inform every frame of Roman Polanski's 'Macbeth.' A brutal examination of violent ambition and tragically ironic self-fulfilling prophecy, the classic Shakespeare story remains as timeless as ever, and the director uses the form of his filmmaking to present his own vision of the material -- a vision steeped in blood and dread, in agonizing guilt and unrelenting folly… "full of sound and fury."
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Criterion brings 'Macbeth' to Blu-ray on a single BD-50 disc housed in a standard clear case (eschewing the recent dual format releases and cardboard packaging the company was previously using) with spine number 726. An insert with an essay by critic Terrence Rafferty is also included.
The movie is provided with a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Though just a tad uneven, this is a fantastic video presentation, highlighting Polanski's striking visuals well.
The source print is in great shape with no major signs of damage or wear. A moderate to heavy layer of grain is visible throughout, though its consistency does tend to waver from scene to scene. Clarity is good, revealing solid fine details in the characters' chainmail armor and all of the period appropriate sets and props. With that said, the picture does have a comparatively soft look and there are a few shots that look faintly out of focus. The color palette adheres to a mostly gloomy style, with many scenes sticking to a bluish/gray cast or rustic look. A few scenes bathed in the sun's orange glow offer a warmer tinge, and red also tends to pop, giving appropriate emphasis to the movie's bloody violence. Whites are bright in light outdoor scenes, but the picture looks a little dim in other sequences. Shadow detail is solid, though blacks are a hair elevated. Thankfully, digital artifacts are mostly absent, but grain does have a faintly noisy quality in a few isolated instances (particularly early on).
Taken from a new 4K scan, this director approved transfer is quite impressive. There are a few inconsistencies here and there, but by and large this is a respectful and rather gorgeous image.
The film is presented with an English DTS-HD MA 3.0 mix and optional English subtitles. While it lacks the immersive quality of a full surround sound track, the audio features strong design work.
Dialogue is clear and clean, making it easy to hear every one of Shakespeare's famous lines and soliloquies. With that said, the track does have a comparatively flat quality. Effects work like galloping horses, slashing swords, and falling rain are all spread nicely throughout the three channel presentation, but notable directionality is fairly rare. The eerie and unsettling music score carries good stereo separation, and there is some minor low frequency kick during battle scenes. Thankfully, I detected no age-related issues like hissing, pops, or crackle.
While not as enveloping as contemporary 5.1 or 7.1 tracks, this vintage 3.0 mix offers a fairly expansive soundstage, lending some welcomed atmosphere to the film.
Criterion has provided a strong assortment of supplements, including several documentaries and interviews. All of the special features are presented in 1080p with Dolby Digital 1.0 or 2.0 audio (unless noted otherwise).
Roman Polanski's 'Macbeth is a violent and visually arresting adaptation of the legendary Shakespeare play. With powerful performances and absorbing imagery, the director offers his own unique interpretation of the timeless tale. The video transfer and audio mix are both impressive, and Criterion has supplied an informative collection of special features. This is a strong release for a striking film. Highly recommended.