After last year’s vivid depiction of Macbeth, starring Michael Fassbender, it is worth turning back the clocks to watch Roman Polanski’s 1971 interpretation. Both approach the text with the same 11th Century period setting and they sprawl across vast locations that only cinema can truly exploit.
Setting the scene in the muddy Highlands of Scotland, the director of Chinatown directs a gory, explicit version of Macbeth. As the film closes by returning to the witch’s cave you wonder if, in the opening scenes, Banquo could’ve saved a lot of hassle and told Macbeth, “Forget it Mac, it’s Witchin’ town”.
Macbeth, of course, could never forget the sisters’ sinister predictions of power and riches. As an almost-accurate reading of the text, Polanski’s Macbeth begins with war behind the opening credits. The king (Nicholas Selby) walks across a coast to see bodies littering the grey beach. Meanwhile, victors in the fight, Macbeth (Jon Finch) and Banquo (Martin Shaw), stumble across a cave where the infamous witches lurk with talk of reign for Macbeth. As predicted, Macbeth becomes the Thane of Glamis, but as the witches foretold, he has yet to be King. Convinced of this destiny, Lady Macbeth (Francesca Annis) convinces him to murder the king, knowing it is Macbeth who’ll be crowned. But his demons haunt him and he slowly begins to lose his mind – as does his Lady.
Executively produced by Playboy’s Hugh Hefner, explicitness was always on the cards. But, against contemporary television and cinema, it is actually rather tame. Game of Thrones is the obvious connection, as it shares a similar play of politics and power. Macbeth would be more than comfortable in Winterfell, I imagine. The era’s beheading and bloody battles suit the HBO series and, in that manner, Polanski’s Macbeth is more than connected to the show. The final fight between Macbeth and Macduff (Terence Bayler), carrying heavy swords and expertly wielding them within a medieval castle, could’ve been the frame of reference for Eddard Stark and Jamie Lannister, as they clashed in the first season of Game of Thrones.
Shakespeare, of course, is a point of reference for so much television, not least Game of Thrones. For example, House of Cards, clearly takes its lead from Richard III. What Polanski expertly manages to do in this Macbeth is utilize the cinematic sets in a manner that reflects the situation. Beginning in open spaces, Macbeth isolates himself further and further until he is fighting in a tight area, knocking over spears and cups as he desperately fights for his life. This was a man who sold his respect for greed.
Crucial to watching this Macbeth, is acknowledging what Polanski had to go through only a few years prior to production. In 1969, Polanski was stuck in London as his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, enjoyed an evening meal at LA restaurant, El Coyote, with friends. Returning home, the “family” of Charles Manson turned up and murdered her group. Every victim had been stabbed to death – Tate had been wounded sixteen times. In this context, it is no surprise that the BBFC found it difficult to rate Macbeth – claiming it “reeked” of Sharon Tate’s death. How he could even continue to direct this film is unbelievable. But it also adds a poignancy that cannot be ignored.
Polanski’s Macbeth is a grand story, a play that utilizes the scale of the cinema screen and feeds a horror that few have experienced, but Polanski knows intimately. Memorable, and influential, this Macbeth is a dark, brooding take and a version that seeps into your bones as you sit, in grim shock, at the violent end to Macbeth’s rule.