What does one do when one’s world has come crashing down in a fit of senseless violence, for all the world to see? For Roman Polanski, it was a retreat into classic literature, to the story of a character as seemingly accursed as he. The brutality inflicted on his wife Sharon Tate and their friends by the Manson Family shocked the world, instantly stopping Polanski’s rise as a major talent in the wake of such wonderfully-received films as Knife In The Water, Cul-de-Sac, and Rosemary’s Baby.
It was said that Polanski was cursed for Rosemary’s Baby, thanks to its depiction of Satan worshipers and the Antichrist. Certainly the gruesome murders would be reason enough to make such a suggestion. Macbeth, in turn, was a man cursed by good fortune, and it is a story of paranoia, betrayal, and brutal murders, so it’s not completely unrealistic to wonder if this story was selected because Polanski felt a kinship with Shakespeare’s bleakest character.
Nor does the murder go unmentioned in the film. In the scene following the opening credits, we are shown a foggy beach, and a soldier laying on the ground. A dark figure can be seen emerging from the fog, and when he comes forward, one sees that this person is an (unintended?) dead ringer for Charles Manson. This mystery man then sets about brutally slaying the soldier on the ground. Give you something to think about? It sure does, as does Francesca Annis, who portrays Lady Macbeth, and bears more than a passing resemblance to Tate.
Still, these trainspotting moments should not take away from the film itself. For all its darkness, its brutality, and its violence, the film itself is a straightforward adaptation of Shakespeare’s masterpiece. The violence Polanski depicts comes straight from the play; he didn’t have to add one jot. It doesn’t hurt that Jon Finch’s performance of Macbeth deftly captures the increasing paranoia and delusion required to make the character come alive. Macbeth is not an easy role to play; the character has often been portrayed by older actors, those with years of experience. Polanski intentionally cast a younger actor, and his choir of Finch was impeccable. Furthermore, Polanski’s pacing is intentionally slow, and working in tandem with the setting’s darkness, the film’s atmospherics only add to the tension and the mania.
This Criterion reissue offers up a delightful second disc of informative, enlightening content. It contains Polanski Meets Macbeth, a contemporary documentary about the making of the film, a new documentary about the film, featuring recollections from the surviving cast and from Polanski, as well as a hilarious interview with the late Kenneth Tynan, who helped adapt the film. Also notable is an interview with Polanski and playwright Peter Coe, who had adapted the play, but interestingly set it in Africa.
Polanski’s post-Macbeth career and personal life would shortly become problematic and troubling, and his star never quite reached the heights that it should have reached, had it not been for the incidents around him, as well as his own actions.
Just like, you know…Macbeth.