The Scottish play.
What can I possibly say that hasn’t already been said about Roman Polanski? He’s one of the all-time great filmmakers, and yet the dude’s personal life is messed up. Case in point: Polanski’s 1971 adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, his first film to be released after the horrific murder of his wife Sharon Tate at the hands of the Charles Manson gang. It’s hard to watch this tale of murder and madness and not be reminded of the real-life tragedy. Nonetheless, it’s one of the greatest works of literature and theater in history, and the choices Polanski has made in capturing it have been a curiosity for many years, so let’s all do our best to separate the art from the artist as we venture onto the blasted heath…
It’s old-timey Scotland. Nobles Macbeth (Jon Finch, Kingdom of Heaven) and Banquo (Martin Shaw, The Chief) are returning home from the battlefield when they come across some witches, who prophesy that Macbeth will eventually become king of Scotland. Driven by his ambitions and even more so by the ambitions of his seductive, conniving wife Lady Macbeth (Francesca Annis, Dune), Macbeth secretly murders the king and is named the new king in his place.
That’s not the end, though. To maintain his power and his secrets, Macbeth next plots to kill Banquo and his rival Macduff (Terence Bayler, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone). The witches’ words lead him to believe he is unkillable, only to have their double meanings undo him. A lot more people die, Lady Macbeth goes mad, and Macbeth and Macduff square off for the final showdown.
In recent years, Macbeth has become my favorite Shakespeare play, and certainly the one I’ve read and re-read the most. We’re dealing with a classic, timeless work, and an adaptation that makes some very interesting choices in bringing it to the screen, so let’s go ahead and break this thing down scene-by-scene.
Act 1 Scene 1
Polanski opens the movie in silence, over a vast, empty landscape. There’s a real “post apocalypse” feel to the bleakness of the setting. The witches come into frame, two old women and one young one. More silence as they bury some ghoulish items in the mud — this movie’s version of casting spells, I suppose. This is the first of Polanski’s curious choices. Rather than a lot of big theatrics showing the witches as demonic or otherworldly, he instead grounds them in this reality by making their strange ways more about ritual than flat-out fantasy magic. References to the witches’ familiars, Greymalkin and Paddock, have been cut from the script, no doubt to make the witches more grounded.
Act 1 Scene 2
The opening credits play over sounds of a battle. Readers of the play know that it describes mighty battles not seen on stage, but a lot of film versions take time out to show the battle, Braveheart-style. Instead, Polanski cuts to the aftermath, showing brutality by a field of dead bodies.
The dialogue between King Duncan (Nicholas Selby, The Madness of King George) and the bloody captain has been shortened considerably. Here we see another of Polanski’s goals — not just to ground the play in a filmic reality, but also to streamline and simplify it for the masses. When adapting Shakespeare, some make things as simplistic and obvious as possible for first-timers, while others go for broke, hoping to explore every possible nuance and subtlety of the text. Polanski is clearly after the former, as we’ll see a lot of literalism in this version, with various story points spelled out as big and broad as possible for viewers at home. For this opening scene, that means skipping over the details of the two battles and instead making it clear that Macbeth is the one who kicked everybody’s asses. This is true of the follow-up conversation with exposition machine Ross (John Stride, The Omen), who very quickly covers the plot points about Macbeth’s upcoming promotion to Thane of Cawdor so the movie can keep moving along quickly.
Act 1 Scene 4
We’re introduced to Macbeth in another silent, wordless scene as he oversees a bunch of people being hanged and then rides his horse past a bunch of graves. What to make of this? That this is a man already surrounded by death and killing. For as much as everyone talks about Macbeth being a good man gone bad, this scene establishes that he already has one foot firmly placed in his dark side.
Those who know the play know Macbeth’s famous “Not so foul and fair a day…” line is coming up, but Polanski makes you wait a long time before it’s spoken. I felt like I was in The Rocky Horror Picture Show‘s audience, shouting, “Say it! Say it!” When he does finally say it, it’s in context of being outside in the rain, but also by seeing carts of dead bodies ride past. So, the weather is foul, but the deaths are fair?
Macbeth hears the creepy singing of the witches and investigates. The witches’ anecdote about the sailor’s wife is cut from the film and we skip right ahead to the witches’ prophecy, filmed amid wet, windy weather, and it looks really cool. When the witches vanish, it’s into a hidden door in the ground, and not by magic — another strange choice. Again, this is downplaying the magic in favor of grounding the tale in its own reality.
Next, we see Ross and Lennox arrive with news of Macbeth’s promotion to Thane of Cawdor. Polanski stages Macbeth’s soliloquies as voiceover, as if they are inner thoughts. This was done allegedly for “psychological realism,” but I wonder if it limits the actor’s performance. We see him fretting and contorting his face to match the voiceover, and I can’t help but think it’d be better if he were to go ahead and say these famous lines.
Act 1 Scene 4
The play tells us that the first Cawdor, the traitor, was executed, but Polanski goes ahead and shows us the execution in a big set piece, filmed at a castle with tons of extras. We meet the king’s sons Malcolm (Stephan Chase, Maleficent) and Donalbain (Paul Shelley, Dot The I). Malcolm’s dialogue has been split between him and Donalbain, and Donalbain walks with a limp. These little tricks are to help establish Donalbain as more of a major player in the film than he was in the original text. The execution, meanwhile, further illustrates the day-to-day violence and brutality of this world.
Act 1 Scene 5
Here we see Macbeth’s castle, atop a singular peak on a high hill, a sharp contrast to the flat vistas seen up until now. We meet Lady Macbeth in her soliloquy about the king’s visit and Macbeth’s ambitions, again delivered in voiceover. It’s an interesting staging, how everything around her is grey and colorless while she’s decked out in a bright blue dress and her long red hair. This makes her the absolute center of attention, even when her back is turned to the audience for long stretches of the scene.
At this point, we get a scene cut from Act 1 Scene 4, in which Duncan bestows honors upon Malcolm instead of Macbeth. This moment also establishes that Macbeth’s ambitions were already there to begin with. Notice that the camera focuses on Donalbain’s reaction, as well as Macbeth’s further establishing Donalbain as a major player.
Then Polanski takes us back to Act 1 Scene 5 for Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s reunion, skipping Lady Macbeth’s “unsex me here” soliloquy. Jon Finch and Francesca Annis have a nice, easygoing chemistry in this scene as they chat about the king’s upcoming approach, and you feel these two have genuine affection for each other. This also makes it believable that she would seduce him into murder. Annis’ elfin frame isn’t what you’d think the forceful Lady Macbeth would look like, but she’s got the sneakiness and plotting down pat. The “unsex me here” speech gets moved to the end of the scene, staged as Lady Macbeth stands atop the castle tower watching Duncan approach, which is a nice way of adding a powerful visual element to the speech.
Act 1 Scene 6
Riding up to Macbeth’s castle, we get Duncan’s line about the air being “nimbly and sweet.” His upbeat attitude is contrast against grey skies and gloomy, ominous music. Polanski is having a little darkly comic fun with Duncan, surrounding him with signs and portents of his doom and having him oblivious to it. This continues as he greets Lady Macbeth warmly, as lighting and then rain storms around him. Back in ye olden times, superstitious folks believed freak storms were “prodigies,” nature responding against evil acts committed by man. The play Macbeth is filled with talk of prodigies, such as wacky weather and 24-hour darkness. When Polanski interrupts one of Duncan’s lines with the sound of thunder, it’s another example of the literalism he brings to the film, actually showing us a prodigy and putting the “there’s a storm coming” symbolism right in front of viewers’ faces.
Act 1 Scene 7
Here’s one time where the voiceover soliloquy actually works. Macbeth’s “If it were done” speech is in his thoughts during the king’s feast, with him lost in his murderous thoughts while everyone around him is having a grand old time. It’s a marvelous contrast, one that showcases the character’s duality. Banquo’s son Fleance sings a song at this point, something not found in the play, but it provides first-timers with an introduction to the character. Macbeth’s voiceover continues outside in the rain, with the storm continuing to act as prodigy/metaphor.
He’s joined by Lady Macbeth, where she rips on him for his wishy-washiness. She does this not in a scolding way, but teary-eyed, as if he’s wronged her. It’s her tears, not her forcefulness, which get him over his fears. Note that their conversation moves inside where two guys are doing a dangerous-looking dance around a pair of swords, another metaphor for Macbeth’s position, as he’s about to enter dangerous territory.
Act 2 Scene 1
In most versions of the play, including filmed versions, the king’s murder happens off stage. Instead, Polanski continues to make everything literal on screen by showing us what they’re doing every step of the way. Macbeth’s dialogue with Banquo is given double meaning during this part, in which Macbeth is actively hiding what he’s up to, which adds a lot of tension to their back-and-forth.
For the “Is this a dagger I see before me” speech, Polanski goes really literal by actually showing us a ghostly dagger that Macbeth is unable to touch. For a film that has been grounded in its own reality up to this point, the introduction of a flashy special effects scene feels out of place. I can’t help but think that Polanski worries we won’t understand what Macbeth is thinking and feeling unless he makes it all explicitly visual. Keeping with that idea, it’s at this point that Polanski continues to show us scenes only spoken of in the text, namely Macbeth skulking around and murdering Duncan. In the play, the gory details are left to the audience’s imaginations, but Polanski, again in his efforts to literalize everything for the audience, shows the whole bloody act unfolding step by step. Although there’s a lot to be said for leaving it to the imagination, Polanski nonetheless films the murder with style and intensity. Remember that at the time Polanski was mostly known as a horror director thanks to the huge success of Rosemary’s Baby, and this has him in full-on horror mode. It’s followed by the famous hand-washing scene, in which Macbeth and Lady Macbeth have their “What have I done?” moment before committing to keeping this secret. It’s pretty much an impossible scene to screw up, and Polanski is smart enough to leave it in the hands (heh) of his actors.
Act 2 Scene 3
Yay, it’s the porter. I could write an entire book on the porter’s speech, but I’ll spare you and try to keep this short. In the movie, the porter (Sydney Bromley, Dragonslayer) delivers most of his speech while urinating against a wall. It’s crude, broad comedy, but a bit of broad comedy is what the play needs at this moment to break the tension after all that murder. Like most of the dialogue, the porter’s speech has been cut considerably, which is a shame, since much of what he says, especially about equivocators and equivocation, reflects on the entire story.
The porter leads us into our first real introduction to Macduff, and Polanski wisely keeps the camera on Macduff despite the porter’s wisecracks, knowing that he needs to establish Macduff as a main character and adversary to Macbeth in this scene. Then we get to everyone discovering the death of Duncan. It’s a tricky scene, as there’s a danger of the actors overdoing their shock and grief. Polanski uses the filmic medium to make the scene bigger by having everyone run through the castle in their grief, giving these big emotions a big visual scope to go with them.
Act 2 Scene 4
Ross’s conversation with the old man has been cut from the play, which is too bad, because the old man’s description of storms and prodigies, and of horses going mad and killing each other, could have made for some memorable visuals. Instead, we get Ross and Macduff’s exposition scene establishing that Macbeth is now king and Macduff is leaving. Both Polanski and Shakespeare keep these bits short to keep the story moving forward.
Act 2 Scene 5
In the play, we never see Macbeth’s coronation; it happens quickly and offstage. In the movie, however, Polanski takes the camera back outdoors for another big set piece, showing us the coronation, making it clear that this is a turning point for the character and the for the overall story. To further bring the point home, Polanski puts Banquo’s “Thou hast it now” soliloquy over this moment.
Act 3 Scene 1
Macbeth’s line “Here’s our chief guest” is in the movie not as a greeting to Banquo, but to a caged bear brought to the castle. This is another very curious choice made by Polanski. Is this a metaphor to show that Banquo is an animal to be hunted, or a metaphor to show that Macbeth is now trapped in a cage of his own making? Or is it both? This scene’s dialogue between Macbeth and Banquo is one that must be played with subtlety, as both characters are now paranoid about and plotting against one another. The actors don’t overplay it, which is good. Macbeth’s speech about his fears about Banquo is spoken not as a soliloquy, but instead delivered to Lady Macbeth, which keeps her a player in the story and shows she is still his co-conspirator at this point.
Then we get Macbeth’s meeting with murderers, where the audience gets a deeper glimpse into his inner darkness than they’ve previously seen. Jon Finch plays the scene rather like a Bond villain, pouring wine and speaking the great Shakespearean insults with a slight playfulness. Polanski then gives us an odd, wordless dream sequence, again taking the Macbeths’ inner conflict and making it as literal as possible for audiences. You could argue it is unnecessary, but, like the king’s murder, it’s another slickly filmed moment of Polanski horror.
Act 3 Scene 2
Lady Macbeth gives her husband a pep talk of sorts. This scene is one of the most unchanged from the text, and Polanski lets his actors play it out in full. He’s staged it in their bedroom, giving it a sense of warmth and intimacy, probably one last moment of closeness between them before things get really crazy. For all the changes that Polanski and his team have made to the play, this scene shows that they haven’t done it out of disrespect, because here Polanski puts his trust in the material, and he equally trusts that the viewers will “get it.”
Act 3 Scene 3
The third murderer has been the source of much speculation over the years. Chances are it’s just some third guy Macbeth hired, but many have wondered if number three is part of some other plot happening on the fringes of the play. In this movie, the third murderer is…Ross?!? Yes, the exposition guy gets in on action, and as the movie progresses, he’s portrayed as more and more conspiratorial and opportunistic. Shakespeare purists have decried this choice as blasphemy, but I have no problem with it. It’s not a choice that would work for every adaptation, but it works fine for this one. The murderers confront Banquo and Fleance and it’s an excellent fight, bringing some much-needed action into the movie, and Banquo gets to go down as a hero.
Act 3 Scene 4
Polanski adds another wordless scene portraying the fate of the murderers, showing us another level of Ross’s newfound evil. Of course, the big deal about this scene is Macbeth seeing Banquo’s ghost during a dinner party. It’s a great reveal, with a lot of big buildup. The ghost is depicted without a lot of elaborate effects, which makes it creepier and much more effective, keeping the emphasis on the performances while still being just trippy and supernatural enough to keep the audience on edge. Unlike the literalism of the dagger speech, the ghost sighting leaves you wondering whether there really a spirit haunting our hero or if it was all in his mind, which is how the scene should be.
Like most adaptations, this one skips Act 3 Scene 5, the notorious Hecate scene. I have a LOT to say about that one, but because it’s not in the movie, we’ll skip it too. Polanski knows it’s time to start building to the big finale, so he skips right to the good stuff.
Act 4 Scene 1
Macbeth goes back to the witches for more advice and things get crazy. For as much as the movie has mostly grounded the story in a certain reality, there’s no getting around how this scene takes us deep into the world of the supernatural. This is high fantasy and then some. Polanski partially sidesteps this by having Macbeth actually drink from the witches’ cauldron (Eww, did he not hear them saying all that stuff they put in there?) so you could argue that it’s all a hallucination, but the visions he experiences still have meaning, so there’s a rhyme (heh) and reason to it all, twisted as it is. Polanski begins the visions simply, with an image reflected in the cauldron, only to make each vision crazier and more “out there” than the last, ending with a truly tripper mirror gag that shows just how much of a powerful visual stylist Polanski can be.
The greatest Shakespeare scholars in the world can’t agree on what the witches want and why they’re messing with Macbeth, so Polanski smartly doesn’t try to answer that question. Instead he keeps the witches mysterious and otherworldly. They’re nude in this scene (more on that below) with their underground hovel appearing hot and smoky before the visions and then cold and rainy after the visions, which gives viewers the illusion that a lot of time has passed and that change has occurred. This is important, because Macbeth should be a new man after this, believing himself to be unkillable.
Polanski moves Act 3 Scene 7 to this point, in which the character Lennox informs a Lord and the audience that everyone is now suspicious of Macbeth and that Macduff has gone to England to rally the troops, literally. You could argue that this is unnecessary exposition, but these are important details, showing how the metaphoric noose is tightening around Macbeth.
Act 4 Scene 2
Here is the play at its darkest, and Polanski doesn’t pull any punches as Lady Macduff and her kids are goners. Ross’s presence at the start of the scene is given a delicious double meaning, seeing as we now know how rotten he is. This murder is accomplished with a lot of buildup and tension, keeping the audience unsettled the whole time. It’s more of that super-creepy Polanski horror, and it gets across the message that now things are really bad.
Act 5 Scene 1
We go right from one dark, intense scene straight to another, as Lady Macbeth starts her freaky sleepwalking. Francesca Annis goes for it, fully committing to Lady Macbeth’s madness. Of course, the big reason everyone talks about this scene is because she’s nude the whole time. OMG, naked people! Does Lady Macbeth have to be nude? No, but that’s the filmmakers’ choice, so let’s see if we can’t sort out why. Nudity in art doesn’t have to be about sex, even though for most of us, basic human biology kicks in and that’s the first thing we think of. But nudity can mean other things in other contexts — it can be mean freedom, or vulnerability, or strangeness, or even cleanliness. The witches are nude so they can appear alien to Macbeth. Macduff’s young son is shown nude in a bath to emphasize him as innocent and vulnerable (I know, I know, Roman Polanski and kids. How about we not go there). For Lady Macbeth, her nudity is a sign of her madness. This is not something she would normally do; it’s a shock moment that makes her doctor and nurse unsettled and draws the viewers’ attention to the fact something isn’t right. In that way, this is more of Polanski’s literalism, him holding up a big sign to make sure we can tell she’s gone off the deep end. Note that although the movie was co-produced by Hugh Hefner (no, seriously) none of this nudity is exploitative or centerfold-y.
Act 5 Scene 3
Here Polanski really starts rearranging scenes and events to make the film more streamlined as it rockets toward its conclusion. After Macbeth demands no more reports and continues to declare himself invincible, we get a shortened version of Act 4 Scene 3, where Macduff learns of his family’s fate. By having Ross deliver the news, Polanski gives the scene considerable double meaning. Not only do we have the gut-punch of Macduff’s world crashing down around him, but it’s Ross being all sneaky and duplicitous, playing the political game, and this additional element actually heightens the drama instead of distracting from it. Like many adaptations, the weird head games Malcolm plays with Macduff to prove Macduff’s loyalty has been cut. It’s a fascinating piece of dialogue, but, as has often been pointed out, adds little to the overall plot.
Scenes progress very rapidly in this part of the play, as armies mount against Macbeth, and there’s a lot of running around in Macbeth’s castle upon learning this. Jon Finch really sells Macbeth’s arrogance (with possible underlying paranoia) during this, cranking up the tension even further, as he is edited against huge casts of extras outdoors on the move toward him. Polanski seems to want to channel Kurosawa with sweeping shots of horseback soldiers on the go. At this point, Polanski adds a new scene with Lady Macbeth, re-reading the letter from her introductory scene, but doing so now in tears and madness. I’m not sure why Polanski would have done this, except to remind us that she’s still part of the story (for now).
Act 5 Scene 5
Macbeth is ready for battle, but then learns his wife is dead. Shakespeare never tells us how she dies, but Polanski provides his own version. In the midst of his belief that he is immortal, we get a last fleeting glimpse of the good man he once was upon finding Lady Macbeth. This leads us into the “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech, one of the finest written works ever composed. If there was any piece of the text I would rather the actors actually say aloud instead of in voiceover, it’d be this one, but we get the voiceover instead. I guess Polanski agreed, because the second part of the speech is in fact spoken out loud.
This quieter piece of human drama doesn’t last, because, again, we’re building toward the finale. Macbeth marches up to the top of the castle to see that, impossibly, Birnham Wood has come to Dunsinane. This is one moment when capturing the story on film has a huge advantage, as the camera sweeps around Macbeth and over the rolling hills to show us the enemy armies, disguised as the woods of course, on the move. Yes, Polanski is being literal again, spelling everything out exactly for the viewer, but that doesn’t make any less of an inspiring sight. As everyone clears out of the castle, Lennox gets one hell of a death scene. What did the poor guy do to deserve that?
Act 5 Scenes 6-7
The battle is on, and we get some sweet catapult action, but, like in the play, the action comes down the Macbeth/Macduff confrontation — after Macbeth teaches that punk Siward a lesson, of course. A lot of adaptations of the play skip the fighting and violence during the ending, but remember that we were introduced to Macbeth at the start as this might warrior, so it’s only fitting that we see that mighty warrior in action. Plus, ruminations on human existence aside, Shakespeare wrote popular entertainment, so of course he’s going to end it with a huge fight scene. Polanski stages the action first inside Macbeth’s throne room and then in the castle courtyard in front of all the extras. This shows that the duel is not just personal, but that the entire kingdom is at stake. The fight choreography is a little clumsy, but that’s no doubt by design because everyone’s wearing big, clunky metal suits of armor, adding a little realism to the swordplay.
While the play ends on an almost uncharacteristic high note with Malcolm inviting everyone to Scone (where, I’m assuming, they all enjoyed some scones), Polanski skips this bit and instead comes up with an alternate coda, suggesting that the corruption of violence will continue, and that it is a circular type of thing. First, Polanski is not the only one to have dreamed up a darker ending to the play. Second, we’ve got to remember what we learned from Slings and Arrows, that the play Macbeth does not teach us about evil, it merely shows us evil. Thus, any sense of a moral would not sink in on the surviving characters, and it’s fully within the play’s ideas and themes that evil will continue. Bummer ending, but, hey, that’s tragedy for you.
Picture quality on this 2.35:1-framed 1080p Blu-ray is mostly good, with solid colors, natural flesh tones, and deep blacks. There’s some softness and slight flickering on the outdoor scenes, but these are the smallest of small nitpicks. The audio comes in 3.0 DTS-HD Master Audio. It’s a little more muted than the top of the line DTS tracks, with the score being especially downplayed, but you’ll have no problem making out every word of the all-important Shakespeare poetry.
While it’s not quite as thorough as some other Criterion releases, the Blu-ray nonetheless contains some quality extras:
* “Toil and Trouble: The Making of Macbeth” An all-new documentary about the making of the film, featuring interviews with many of the folks involved, including Roman Polanski and Francesca Annis.
* “Polanski Meets Macbeth” A 1971 documentary, featuring raw behind-the-scenes footage from the production.
* Excerpt from a 1971 episode of The Dick Cavett Show, in which Cavett interviews the film’s co-screenwriter, Shakespeare expert Kenneth Tynan.
* Excerpt from a 1972 episode of the English television series Aquarius, featuring Polanski and theater director Peter Coe.
* Booklet containing an essay by critic Terrence Rafferty, exploring the movie’s creation and history.
Yes, I used the actual name instead of the “Scottish play.” Fear not, just before this paragraph I went outside, ran around my building three times, spun in a circle three times, spat on the ground, and recited a passage from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Curse? Reversed.
Macbeth (1971) is not a flawless adaptation of the “Scottish play.” No such thing could ever exist. Instead, it’s one of the best “Shakespeare for beginners” adaptations you’ll find. Roman Polanski has streamlined it for newbies, but made a lot of smart choices on how to streamline it. It’s a complicated play and this is a complex film, but one that’s worth returning to — tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.
Not guilty. Henceforth be earls.