ByKen Anderson, writer at
Ken Anderson

Roman Polanski's controversially violent 1971 adaptation of Macbeth has been re-released though The Criterion Collection in a restored, pristine, special-edition Blu-ray disc. This director-approved edition features an all new documentary with interviews with Polanski and several cast members; a 1971 "making-of" documentary; an interview with co-writer Kennth Tynan; a 1972 TV appearance by Polanski; theatrical trailers, and critical essays.

This version of Macbeth, William Shakespeare’s famously “unlucky” play (theater superstition has it that the play is cursed), was the anticipated first film from the director following his breakout success in 1968 with Rosemary's Baby, and his first work following the brutal murder of his wife, actress Sharon Tate and their unborn child. Polanski cast a youthful Lord and Lady Macbeth (John Finch and Francesca Annis), added nudity and a then-shocking level of graphic realism to the violence; but Macbeth, despite the high level of anticipation awaiting its release, flopped unceremoniously at the boxoffice.

Francesca Annis as Lady Macbeth
Francesca Annis as Lady Macbeth

At the time, Polanski felt the film’s poor performance was due to the public failing to believe his blood-soaked, graphically violent approach to Shakespeare's tale of a nobleman brought low by ambition and waning conscience, was in any way influenced by the Manson killings. It was Polanski's contention that his film was never given a fair chance because misguided critics and Freud-obsessed American audiences insisted on reading allusions into and citing similarities between the Charles Manson Tate/LaBianca murders of August, 1969 and the brutality and severity of all those explicitly-rendered (yet Shakespeare-mandated) stabbings, dismemberments, massacres, beheadings, and infants from their mother's wombs untimely ripp'd.

Lady Macbeth tests her powers of persuasion
Lady Macbeth tests her powers of persuasion

Enough years have passed for it now to be possible to view Polanski's Macbeth through eyes more appreciative of how magnificently faithful the film is to Shakespeare's original text of The Tragedy of Macbeth, and to better appreciate and take note of all the trademark Polanski templates and obsessions in attendance. The Criterion Collection sought Polanski's input into the restoration of sound and image, and thus Macbeth has never looked more vivid nor sounded more resonant. it's a beautiful, powerful film. Fans of Shakespeare or fans of Roman Polanski should find this adaptation to their liking. But perhaps best of all, fans of film get a chance to see of the directors more under-appreciated gems looking better than it did when initially released.

To read more about Polanski's Macbeth, check out my more in-depth review at: Dreams Are What Le Cinema is For.

Macbeth (1971) theatrical trailer


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