Macbeth ★★★★

#41 of 100 in my Top 100 Directors Challenge

Although I've read quite a few of Shakespeare's plays, including this one, for a variety of reasons I've never seen any of them staged in a theater and I've only seen a handful on film. By all accounts, this adaptation from director Roman Polanski is among the most bleak, violent and original of the many versions committed to film. Significantly, it was made in the wake of the murder of Sharon Tate, Polanski's pregnant wife, at the hands of Charles Manson and his gang.

Following tradition, the story opens with the three witches, as played by Maisie MacFarquhar, Elsie Taylor and Noelle Rimmington. On an empty stretch of coastal sand, they bury a noose, a severed hand and a dagger, vowing to meet again in the presence of Macbeth (Jon Finch), before the opening titles appear against a background of fog and the sounds of battle.

We soon learn that King Duncan of Scotland (Nicholas Selby) has been waging war against the Norwegians and his general Macbeth, Thane of Glamis, has won a great victory over the invading forces. Returning from the battlefield with his comrade Banquo (Martin Shaw), Macbeth meets the witches and hears them predict his ascent to the throne. Soon after, Duncan promotes Macbeth to Thane of Cowdor, and the general writes a letter to his wife, Lady Macbeth (Francesca Annis), telling her of his new title and the prophesy.

Polanski might be criticized for chopping out a lot of lines and using voice-over as internal dialog in place of spoken soliloquies, but he uses his cameras skillfully to "show instead of tell" so that nothing much is lost. It also makes the difficult phrasings of the original language a bit more accessible to modern audiences, so I had no complaint about his style.

The tale is so well known, it hardly requires explication. Lady Macbeth conspires with her husband to kill Duncan when he visits their home. They lay the blame on two of the king's guards, whom Macbeth slays before they can protest their innocence. And when Duncan's own sons, Malcolm (Stephan Chase) and Donalbain (Paul Shelley), flee to England, it appears they were behind the murder, which opens the way for the crown to be set upon Macbeth's head.

Of course, this is a story about ambition, conscience and guilt, which Polanski milks for all its darkness. Like a horror story, we see Banquo ambushed and killed at Macbeth's order and then his bloody ghost comes as a waking vision to the new king, even as he is presiding over a banquet. And what could be more frightening than Macbeth's visit to the witches' coven, where he drinks a potion and has a terrifying vision surrounded by dozens of naked old hags.

Act IV, Scene III of the play, where Macduff meets Malcolm in England, has been moved back in the film, which allows for the character known as Ross (John Stride) to put his treachery on display. The action skips straight from the raping and pillaging of "the traitor" Macduff's castle at Fife to the sleepwalking scene in which Lady Macbeth delivers her famous hand-washing performance sans clothing. It's all leading to the showdown between Malcolm/Macduff leading English forces and Macbeth's Scottish army at Dunsinane Hill.

Finch delivers all his big lines with authority and sincerity, notably the "To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow..." stanza, and his sword-fighting is pretty nifty, too. Polanski arranges some really creepy background music, and he tosses the audience a curve-ball at the very last by not ending the film when Malcolm regains the crown. Rather, he appends one more scene with the witches to round off the story in a most sinister way. Truly classic!

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