Roman Polanski’s intense adaptation of Shakespeare’s legendary “Scottish play” arrived in theaters with unwanted baggage. On a superficial level, the project raised eyebrows because it was the first feature film financed by Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, and some critics made sniggering connections between the picture’s startling nude scene (more on that later) and Hefner’s skin-trade notoriety. On a deeper level, however, Macbeth was the first movie Polanski made after his pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate, was murdered by crazed followers of Charles Manson. Accordingly, a lot of critical ink has been spilled analyzing the parallels between the bloody style of Macbeth and Polanski’s presumed need for catharsis after a horrific tragedy.
Both attempts to draw a line between real life and reel life probably have some basis in validity, but it’s equally fair to simply say that Polanski found a gritty style suiting the morbid nature of Shakespeare’s play—after all, Macbeth traffics in such dark subject matter as betrayal, guilt-ridden hallucination, lethal ambition, and witchcraft. So, while there’s no question that Polanski made the material very much his own (lest we forget, he was making creepy movies before the Manson massacre), it’s wrong to marginalize this powerful film by relegating it to the status of a salacious historical footnote.
Adapted for the screen by Polanski and Kenneth Tynan, the movie stars brooding UK actor Jon Finch as Macbeth, the nobleman who fulfills a supernatural prophecy by seizing the Scottish throne after murdering a king. Fierce and lean, with deep-set eyes and a honeyed voice he uses to spit daggers of dialogue, Finch gives an extraordinarily committed performance. He’s matched in potency by beautiful leading lady Francesca Annis, who portrays the scheming Lady Macbeth; the aforementioned nude scene, one of Polanski’s boldest directorial flourishes, features a deranged Annis sleepwalking while she delivers the play’s famed “Out, damned spot!” speech.
Right from the beginning of the film, Polanski immerses viewers in a gritty vision of 17th-century Scotland. Clothes are tattered, skies are gloomy, and terrain is wet with mud. Combined with the shadowy cinematography by Gil Taylor and the churning score by The Third Ear Band (whose music employs instruments and modalities extrapolated from the story’s historical epoch), Polanski employs his unglamorous realism to create a world where death and intrigue feel commonplace. Yet the director also employs his special gift for cataloguing the madness of men by accentuating the fevered quality of speeches that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth deliver; one gets a sense of two people driven mad by exploring the outer edges of avarice. Macbeth isn’t a pleasant film to watch, aside from the gorgeous music of Shakespeare’s words, but it deserves a place among the most distinctive screen treatments of the Bard’s work.