There’s a whole lotta Shakespeare out there, but it’s not easy to find good examples of the bard on the big screen. Even in theatre, I can’t say I’ve ever seen a stage production of Hamlet or Macbeth that’s entirely worked for me; part of the process of ingesting these texts as an impressionable youngster is that you have a set image of how the tragedy might play out, and it’s hard to match that with any production, stage or screen. Roman Polanski’s 1971 version of Macbeth was a flop at the time, but my hot take is that it’s probably the most effective big screen outing for this story of toil and trouble to date.
And so we have Macbeth, played by Jon Finch; a Scottish warrior, he’s due for an upgrade in his position, but gets passed over by King Duncan (Nicholas Selby) in favour of the younger Malcolm (Stephen Chase). But Macbeth’s already on edge due to an encounter with three witches who claim he’ll take the throne, and his pushy wife (Francesca Annis) is there to prick the sides of his intent. Duncan exits stage left after about an hour, but as Macbeth finds that one murder leads to a second, then a third, there’s seemingly no escape from the dark fate that his ambition has set in motion…
Don’t call me woke, but I generally steer clear of Polanski for well-documented reasons; in 1971, though, his legal troubles were still in front of him, and the murder of his wife Sharon Tate and their unborn child seems to have been the driving factor behind the bleak, nihilistic here. Polanski uses Northern English locations and castles to create a rough and ready look, and even if the matching of shots is poor, he taps into Scottish culture that few adaptions consider; Macbeth’s costume even incorporates the lion rampant design. There’s also a unique view of court/castle life, with lots of farm animals, straw, and whitewashed stonework; it’s one of the only adaptions that feels faithful to the spare feel of the original text.
And the acting is good too; Finch seems lean and hungry, Annis reveals the hidden depths required, and there’s some professional support from John Stride, Terence Bayler aka Leggy Mountbatten, Martin Shaw and more crack British thespians. Polanski retains some frequently cut text, like the conversation that reveals the venal commentary of those who attend the king’s court, and also adds some very 70’s dream sequences and visuals that trip balls effectively. And there’s something in Polanski’s insistence on the cyclical nature of evil, a state of continual entropy that seems to envelop the Scotland shown here. The film ends with Donalbain consulting the witches, and suggests the whole narrative will soon begin again, power corrupting absolutely. At the time, Polanski wouldn’t have known that he’d soon by constrained by the results of his own actions, changing a once mercurial talent into as familiar a villain as Macbeth himself.