The more memorable adaptations of Shakespeare that I’ve seen are ones that translate the play to the cinematic medium without smothering the play’s themes and content in attempts to “modernize” the work. Roman Polanski’s adaptation of Macbeth succeeds admirably, and will be an interesting jolt to viewers who find the Bard incomprehensible or who think Shakespeare is all people standing around in tights saying funny lines.
The film opens on a dreary beach at low tide; three ragged women dig a hole in the sand and bury a severed arm whose hand still clutches a dagger, and a length of rope fashioned into a hangman’s noose. It’s so far removed from a stage setting that it’s a bit jarring to hear the witches recite the familiar lines (“When shall we three meet again / In thunder, lightning, or in rain”) but by the time Macbeth, fresh from glory on the battlefield, and his friend Banquo meet up with the witches, the viewer’s accustomed to hearing Shakespeare’s lines in the unfamiliar setting.
Events follow those of the play (and if you haven’t read it yet, do so immediately – it’s a timeless story of power-lust, madness, and revenge). The witches predict that Macbeth (Jon Finch), currently Thane of Cawdor, will also be Thane of Glamis and afterward, king. His friend Banquo is prophesied to not be king himself, but to sire a line of kings. Macbeth initially dismisses the witches’ claims but when King Duncan rewards Macbeth for his battlefield deeds by making him Thane of Glamis, Macbeth sees the predictions as legitimate, and wonders just how he’ll become king. Macbeth’s vague notions of seizing power become a murderous plan thanks to the initiative of his ambitious, coldhearted wife (Francesca Annis). When King Duncan and his entourage stay at Macbeth’s castle, the two murder the king, frame the king’s guards for the deed, and cast such suspicion on the king’s sons Malcolm and Donalbain that the sons flee abroad. Macbeth becomes king but he’s troubled by the witches’ prophecy that his line will die out and Banquo’s descendants will reign in his stead; and by the defection of lords unhappy with Macbeth’s rule, including Macduff, the Thane of Fife. Soon Macbeth becomes more and more ruthless in his attempts to secure his claim, while his wife steadily grows unhinged by her guilt.
What makes this adaptation is that, aside from the unfamiliar cadences of the language (which we soon grow accustomed to), this doesn’t feel like a play. The score by the Third Ear Band is unusual but suits the film well. Monologues are kept to a minimum, with the soliloquies being rendered as voice-overs, a device that works more often than not. (Occasionally one is reminded of David Lynch’s Dune in which the characters had voice-over exposition while the actors made thinking faces). The castles feel ancient and unglamorous and very real, and the outdoor settings on bleak beaches and cold moors not make the play feel less stagy but emphasize the harsh society and surroundings.
It’s a cold film not just in the outdoor settings but in its unflinching brutality. Brief though they are, the opening battlefield scenes show the war as a dirty, violent business. In the play Duncan’s murder is offstage but it’s shown in the film, as is the fact that blood can be difficult to get off one’s hands (literally and metaphorically). Probably the most infamous sequence is the attack on Macduff’s castle and the murder of his family. The fact that this film was Polanski’s first after the murder of Sharon Tate and her unborn child gives the sequence a queasy, disturbing resonance.
The film isn’t perfect. The aforementioned voice-overs grate at times, and the “is this a dagger I see before me” sequence is not only visualized but the dagger is given cheesy psychedelic lighting that ruins the scene’s mood. But for the most part the film succeeds, though it’s not feel-good entertainment and its violence and nudity don’t make it ideal for a high school English class.
The DVD is a sadly bare-bones affair, with a transfer that’s spotty even by my standards, particularly in the film’s beginning. The film has so much that’s unusual about it – for one thing, it’s the first film financed by Hugh Hefner and Playboy – that it’s a shame there’s no supplemental features or documentaries. Still, if you’re looking for a Shakespeare adaptation that doesn’t go too far overboard (such as Titus) then by all means seek out Macbeth.