Out, damn'd spot!

Reinventing screen Shakespeare for the 1970s

Published: Aug 18 2014, 01:01:am

Wednesday, August 16, 1972
MACBETH. Co-written by Kenneth Tynan. Adapted from the play by William Shakespeare. Music by The Third Ear Band. Co-written and directed by Roman Polanski. Running time: 140 minutes. Mature entertainment.
SARCASM ABOUT THE NEW Macbeth feature is hard to resist. Consider the targets.
    The film, a Playboy Production released through Columbia Pictures, has as its executive producer magazine editor/publisher Hugh Hefner. Collaborating on the script was critic Kenneth Tynan, the mind behind the erotic revue Oh! Calcutta (1969).
    Directing the whole effort is Roman Polanski, who would probably like us to forget that he ever wrote, directed and starred in a 1967 film called The Fearless Vampire Killers: Or, Pardon Me But Your Teeth Are in My Neck.
    Sarcasm is hard to resist, but resist it I will for four good reasons.
    First, because Hefner is one of the 20th century's significant social phenomena, a mass culture genius. Second, because Tynan is a phenomenon among critics, an observer who looks ahead as well as back.
    Third, Polanski really is a talented filmmaker with a strong sense of audience. And finally, their Macbeth is one of the best bits of screen Shakespeare I've ever seen.
    Credit is due Hefner for his choice of project. Although his magazine has devoted a lot of space t0 its continuing series "The History of Sex in the Cinema," and heralds the arrival of each new big-budget exploiter with generous "uncoverage," he chose a surprisingly staid property for his fledgling film company's debut venture.
    Credit's due to Tynan for his adaptation of the the Shakespeare text. Purist opinion to the contrary, the Bard is not inviolate, and Tynan has intelligently pared the poetry, added to the prose and preserved the integrity of the dramatic whole.
    In collaboration with Polanski, he has a firm grasp of the play itself, and set about to resolve some of its traditional ambiguities. The most interesting innovation was portraying the Macbeths as young marrieds, a pair of sensitive, sensual individuals willing to risk all for the sake of their ambition.
    Reportedly, Polanski and Tynan worked together on the screenplay for seven weeks. In that time they came to grips with virtually every problem in the play, and evolved consistent characters for each of the dozen or so major players.
    The result is a production in which there are no shadow figures, no characters who suddenly emerge in the third act, deliver an obviously important speech and then retreat, leaving the audience buzzing "Who was that?"
    Credit must go to Polanskl for his inspired realization that Macbeth is a horror story. When he made the above-mentioned Vampire Killers, he was creating a comic homage to the greatest of the contemporary horror houses, Britain's Hammer Films.
    His Macbeth is done in the same spirit and with the same visual style. Beginning with a meticulous attention to detail, both of character and setting, he chose to photograph the action in the murky, muted colour tones so well suited to a sense of period and authentic foreboding.
        Like the Hammer technicians (and like Shakespeare himself), Polanski is not afraid of a little low comedy or a lot of explicit gore in the murders of Duncan (Nicholas Selby), of Banquo (Martin Shaw), and the battlefield beheading of Macbeth.
    Credit, finally, must go to the film's cast. There's not a bad performance in the lot, with everyone speaking (rather than declaiming) Shakespeare's dialogue to near perfection.
    In the central roles of Macbeth and his lady are Jon Finch and Francesca Annis. They play the couple not as monsters of ambition, but as wary young nobles who see their opportunities and take them.
     The Macbeths are plotters in a world of plotters. When they succeed, they are, in their turn, plotted against.
    Is it good Shakespeare?
    There are those who will say no. It tampers with the text, undermines the ambiguities and presents a completely closed reading of the characters, their story and their motivations. In a word, it interprets.
    This reporter says yes. A first-class production, it is consistent, coherent, easy on the ear, exciting to the eye, dramatically involving and completely understandable. Most important, it's a good movie.
    The calculation is obvious. Good movies attract audiences. Good Shakespeare has always been a crowd-pleaser. This Macbeth, then, is the best kind of Shakespeare.
    With this film, Hefner has almost convinced me that the Bard was the kind of man who would read Playboy.

The above is a restored version of a Vancouver Express review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1972. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: In 2014, it's hard to believe that in the 1970s so much ink was spilled about the casual nudity in Roman Polanski's Macbeth. Being something of a contrarian, I pretty much ignored the issue in my review, attempting to focus on the reasons why the movie was worth serious consideration as a performance of Shakespeare. Because of its combination of bare flesh — but not sex — and violence, the film was released in the U.S. with the M.P.A.A.'s dreaded X rating. British Columbia's film classifier, a contrarian in his own right, considered the American reaction excessive, and sent the film out with a Mature classification, a single step up from a General rating. Another subject of discussion in the popular press was the fact that Polanski chose to make such a blood-soaked feature so soon after the tragic murder of his own wife (and unborn child). I had no way of knowing whether that was on the director's mind, and knew that I was unqualified to speculate on the matter. What I could comment on was the quality of the film on the screen. His picture brought the Scottish play to life with all the power and authority that distinguishes good Shakespeare. It remains the best screen version of it that I've seen.

See also: My other reviews of Shakespeare on screen look at King Lear (1971), Henry V (1989) and Much Ado About Nothing (2013).