MacBeth (Roman Polanski, 1971) Peter Brook's King Lear is brutal, and so, too, is Roman Polanski's MacBeth, probably excessively so. There is much graphic carnage in MacBeth, and I would recommend that if you are disturbed by such substance that you think twice before going. But it is healthy to keep in mind that MacBeth is a play filled with violence. All Shakespeare's tragedies are; one need only to leaf through the last acts of them to prove itself out. But there is much to praise in Polanski's version; it is a fuller version of the play it is based on than King Lear. Peter Brook cut out a voluminous amount of Shakespeare's original prose. The cinematography and Polanski's camera placements are all very assured, and very fine in detail.*
The acting of Jon Finch and Francesca Annis as MacBeth and his Lady are fine for what Polanski's interpretation is. But it is my view that MacBeth should be older (and) probably less crude than is Finch's portrayal; an older man could speak the "out, out brief candle" speech with more of a knowing world-weariness than the young MacBeth here could manage.**
Both these films are hard (and) tough with a gritty interpretation.*** The beauties of Shakespeare--his words--are still there to be enjoyed and marveled over, but the madness, the savagery, and the evil inherent in those words are presented with such ferocity, that one's view of the words on the page will be forever altered. Those sensitive enough to see the beauty of the words may not be able to stand up to what is graphically presented within them.
Broadcast on KCMU-FM November 18th and 19th, 1975.
* I smirked at that sentence, thinking: "What would an unassured shot look like?" and immediately came up with an answer: shaky-cam! One stray thought—MacBeth is a bloody play, but one other reason the film might be so graphic (and believe me, that shot of MacBeth's severed head isn't the worst of it) is that this was the fist film Polanski made after the savage butchery inflicted on his wife, Sharon Tate, and friends in Polanski's home by followers of Charlie Manson in 1969. It is not too big a leap that Polanski saw a similarity between Manson and MacBeth.
** But one should also remember this film was in production soon after Franco Zeffirelli's hit film of "Romeo and Juliet," which did something radical--actually portray R & J as being still in their late teens, rather than, say, Liz and Dick. The tragedy is a bit more keenly felt when it's kids' lives that are being cut short so soon. Plus, to have the cast young and attractive might bring in audiences (it didn't). The film was a "Hugh M. Hefner Production" financed with "Playboy" money, so there's another reason for young attractive people in the leads (amusingly the most nudity in the film the scenes with the crone-like witches). But, I always imagine "MacBeth" as a brute (probably due to favoring of the Welles version), not very political, and passed over to advancement because of it. Fatally ambitious, MacBeth enters into an arrangement with the witches ro ascend to the throne. It plays a bit better for me if MacBeth is older, and a bit desperate to achieve his life's ambitions (and his wife's) at last.
*** This review is a companion piece to the review of Peter Brook's King Lear.