Macbeth (1971)


*. I think it’s easy to miss how bold an interpretation of Shakespeare this was at the time. You see the medieval muckery, and the armies massing before Macbeth’s castle with their banners and funny helmets, and you automatically think of Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975). But that movie hadn’t changed our view of the Middle Ages forever yet.
*. Macbeth has a reputation as Shakespeare’s bloodiest play, but even so a lot of people were shocked by the violence in this film. You get your nose rubbed in it right from the beginning, with that severed hand the witches bury, and the (literally) gratuitous macing of the dying man on the beach. There will be more blood to come, and it’s brought home with some impressive effects throughout. Macbeth’s decapitated head strikes me as particularly well done.


*. In addition to the violence, the nudity of Lady Macbeth also raised some eyebrows, especially from people who attributed it to Playboy‘s funding of the project. They were wrong to do so (nudity had already been written into the script), but all the same I’m not sure it’s necessary. I guess it emphasizes Lady M’s ripening vulnerability, but it seems distracting to me. On the other hand, her body makes an effective contrast with those of the shaggy, saggy witches.
*. The real creative change-up Polanski (and screenwriter Kenneth Tynan) threw at the play was to make the Macbeths into a young power couple. I think this was a terrific idea, as a way both to liven things up and introduce a new wrinkle to these characters. Of course the Macbeths are ambitious, but it makes sense that they’re hungry young people on the make. The story could still make sense with an older couple playing this game (think of Francis Underwood and his wife in House of Cards, or Patrick Stewart and Kate Fleetwood in the 2010 Macbeth), but I think it makes more sense that they’re young.


*. It helps tremendously that Jon Finch and Francesca Annis come through with such great performances. Their characters’ arcs perfectly intersect (as they should), with Finch becoming weary and cynical while Annis goes from calculation to fragility. But in each case you can see the seeds of their later fall in their first appearances, perhaps not their tragic flaws so much as their inherent weakness. Macbeth is too easily led, his wife too good at fooling herself.
*. How many children has Lady Macbeth? None. She’s too young, or perhaps she’s too much a career woman. Her line about knowing what it’s like to give suck has been taken out.


*. It’s all a giant pissing match. Having to pour Malcolm a drink is what turns Macbeth back to his plan to kill Duncan, and Ross being slighted for promotion is what turns that climber against Macbeth. None of this is in the play, but it works marvelously here.
*. There were other changes in emphasis as well. Chief among these is the centrality of Ross, a minor figure in the play who becomes the necessary man here. Not everyone can be top dog, but there are rewards enough for those who can run with the pack.


*. In his Criterion essay, Terrence Rafferty mentions how the soliloquies are presented as interior monologues was a nod to Olivier’s Hamlet, but that doesn’t catch all of it. Olivier’s interior monologues are still soliloquies in the sense of being delivered on stage (or screen) alone. Here we see Macbeth still part of the action, but withdrawn into himself, mentally removed.
*. False seeming is the essence of Shakespeare, his sense that everyone is acting. There are nods to this theme in Macbeth (“There’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face”), but Polanski really makes it front and center. This is a Macbeth where everybody seems to know what’s going on. It’s built out of knowing looks. When Macduff takes his leave of Ross you know what they’re both thinking, just as we know what passes between Banquo and Ross when Macbeth is elevated, and between Macbeth and Malcolm when Macbeth fills the prince’s glass. Nothing needs to be said.
*. When Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V came out much was made of its realistic look, which mainly meant the muddy, bloody field of Agincourt. Polanski had done it all before. And I think this was a creative decision, though the mud was at least partially the result of all the rain they had to endure during filming.
*. Given the downscale look of so much of the movie (I really like the witches’ stone hovel), I thought making Macbeth’s eyrie a rather romantically situated and decorated version of Lindisfarne Castle was one of the few mistakes in the film. It looks like Camelot.
*. The swordfight between Macbeth and Macduff is wonderful because it captures how awkwardly people moved in all that gear and how clumsy an affair it could be. Dropping one’s weapon and just wrestling was as good a tactic as any. Macduff doesn’t even take a weapon when one is offered him. And I also like how Macbeth has to just sit down at one point because he’s out of breath. That armour is heavy!



*. I have no problem with the epilogue that has Donalbain off to see the witches. The will to power is eternal. There will be new pretenders to the throne. And presumably Ross will be there with an eye to the main chance.
*. Pauline Kael thought Polanski reduced “Shakespeare’s meanings to the banal ‘life is a jungle.'” Perhaps, but every production of Shakespeare has to settle on some interpretation, has to choose from among Shakespeare’s many meanings. And I think Polanski made a prescient choice.
*. It’s often said that Hamlet was a nineteenth-century play. And I think it was Northrop Frye who thought King Lear belonged to the twentieth. It seems to me that Macbeth, for all its limitations, may best fit our own time.
*. It’s precisely that “life is a jungle” banality that captures the social Darwinist spirit of our age, one that embraces the ruthless and destructive struggle for primacy in the corporate and political worlds and declares that this is it: that’s all there is. And when we get to the end, and look at the wreckage of our lives, our civilization, our world, there’s nothing to do but shrug at the pointlessness of it all and go out guns blazing. Like Scarface‘s Tony Montana, Macbeth has no children. What marks our age isn’t so much our resignation to the law of the jungle but our giving up on posterity.


12 thoughts on “Macbeth (1971)

  1. Bookstooge

    Talk about a melancholy review!
    I was ready to sit down and drown in “meaningless, meaningless, all is meaningless! sayeth the Teacher” after it 😦

    Thank goodness ,I have my job to look forward to, that I love so much * eye roll *

      1. fragglerocking

        That’s true but same as the North East really. This was Polanski’s first movie after the death of Sharon Tate, and after 2 years of depression so that must have had an impact on how he directed this.

      2. Alex Good Post author

        Yes, I’ve heard the connection made between the Manson killings and the way the killing of Macduff’s family is presented. Seems likely there was something there.


    The sun only comes out in Scotland when I read your strikingly intelligent reviews. I think this is probably the best Shakespeare film to date, adapting the Bard well for cinema. It’s terse, violent, but that’s right for the play, and the performances are really good. I generally don’t do Polanski, but I guess this was before his fall from grace, and I think he nails this text, supernatural trappings and all.

  3. 10 Years Older than the Pyramids

    Making Lady Macbeth ‘too young’ grates with those who know their Scottish history – and that Macbeth was succeeded as King by his stepson (his wife’s son by an earlier marriage) when in his mid-twenties.


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