Classic Musings: The Tragedy of Macbeth (1971)

Like many other receptive teenage students, I was introduced to "Macbeth" at a point where the power of literature had only a tenuous grasp over me, despite the efforts of other significant works -- the bleak poetry of Poe, the grandness of Homer, even other plays by William Shakespeare -- attempting to draw me in. Something about the mysticism of witchcraft navigating a country's politics, the vivid imagery of dreams and madness, and the melancholy ruminations of an undeserving king surrounded by suspicion and deceit finally sparked my appreciation for exploring a piece of work further than the surface. It was only later on that I viewed several of the film versions of Macbeth, even later discovering Roman Polanski's adaptation after seeing Rosemary's Baby and his other works of suspense. Only after developing such an appreciation for Polanski's oeuvre did his rendition of Shakespeare's seminal tragedy seem like an ideal pairing, which culminates in an exceptionally precise and moody telling that, in so many words, appears on-screen nearly as the play did in my impressionable young mind -- with a few alterations, of course.

Macbeth emerged as Polanski's response to the murder of then-wife Sharon Tate, course-correcting from the director's expected return to comedy -- in the vein of The Fearless Vampire Killers -- towards bleaker, richer material and a desire to adapt one of Shakespeare's plays. It's also a violent and psychologically-demanding work, likely the reason why Polanski had such a difficult time obtaining funds for it in the tragedy's aftermath ... and also the reason why his frame of mind was ideal for such a morose and brutal premise. Eventually, with backing from Hugh Hefner's newly-created production wing at Playboy, Polanski fleshed out his macabre telling of the Scottish would-be-king (Jon Finch), whose ascension to the country's throne gets prophesized by a coven of witches encountered in Scotland's misty moors following a great battle. After the first step in his political climb is confirmed shortly after, the story delves into the tenuous balance between destiny and premeditation once King Duncan's crown comes within his reach, as the ambition of Macbeth and his manipulative wife (Francesca Annis) leads them to murder, psychosis, and sedition.

Polanski chose to accurately replicate Shakespeare's lyrical dialogue and the brooding medieval time period in his rendition of Macbeth, letting the story's inherently ominous atmosphere do much of the talking. Influenced by Laurence Olivier's Shakespearean productions and determined to upstage the previous adaptations of the play that, in one way or another, deviated from the essence of the source material, he and co-writer (and Shakespeare authority) Kenneth Tynan tailor the dialogue's tempo in ways that genuinely flow with the grim scenarios. Everything here somehow relates to innate human behavior, a demeanor frequently lost in the grandiose theatricality of stage-y renditions, whether it's in the dynamics of conversation or the psychosis of Macbeth himself through internalized monologues. Polanski's ability to disconcert the audience takes on a strong presence in Shakespeare's prose, eliciting shades of the claustrophobic mania in Repulsion and the dark fantastical conspiracy in Rosemary's Baby through the impacts of the witches' prophecy on both the burgeoning king and his wife.

Casting the Macbeths as somewhat younger, more robust individuals adds a unique dimension to their motivation without altering Shakespeare's intentions, given weight by the considerable talents of Jon Finch and Francesca Annis. Their plotting operates surprisingly well through the gusto of individuals who truly appear as if they haven't been browbeaten by endless politicking, those who've made hasty decisions due to their inexperienced vigor, as does their descent into madness in response to the weight of their deeds. Jon Finch exudes charismatic intensity as Macbeth morphs from a high-ranking soldier to shoehorned royalty, where the character's moments of doubt in his actions are plainly conveyed through Finch's piercing eyes and increasingly weatherworn voice. The manipulation of Lady Macbeth over her husband is, perhaps, even more captivating: coupled with Polanski's outlook on their relationship, Francesca Annis shapes her into an understated and compassionate schemer, a tricky balance since it's easy for her temperament to skew too obviously in one direction or the other.

With the foggy horizon and craggy ruins of the medieval Scottish landscape serving as the backdrop to Macbeth's cutthroat aspiration, rarely touched by rays of sunlight (unless it's for effect), Polanski stages a credible atmosphere for the play's bleak commentary. Hauntingly captured through the lens of Dr. Strangelove and The Omen cinematographer Gilbert Taylor, those desolate expanses drive home the transparency of Macbeth's direct hunger for power, shrewdly juxtaposed with the solemn gazes and intense body language produced by his political machinations. Polanski grasps the potency of the play's haunting imagery, too, and how it relates to Macbeth's waning mental state, so he goes to exquisite lengths to preserve -- and enhance -- those elements in visual effects. From spectral daggers to bodies torn asunder in a dreamscape, he distills this turmoil into an absorbing psychological rumination in motion, exploring the significance of death, fate, and guilt in suggestive and macabre ways. His usage of blood and the color red are particularly intriguing, even before Lady Macbeth's famously symbolic lines.

Despite the antiquated time period and its fantastical symbolic elements, the themes at the core of Shakespeare's "Macbeth" -- the corrupt making of authority figures and the enduring remorse over ruthless actions that cannot be simply washed away -- linger as a timeless and pertinent cautionary tragedy, to which Roman Polanski has a hand in preserving through this masterful interpretation. A crescendo of gothic dread begins upon the sight of a severed hand grasping a dagger being buried by witches in the film's opening sequences, and that disquieting feeling continues to grow around the director's cynical viewpoint on the stratagems of those that desire power (and those who simply wish to mettle in the affairs of men), underscoring the futility of it all along its bloody path. The longevity of its cautionary message, coupled with its touches of mystic horror, are some of the reasons why "Macbeth" resonates with many at a young age, and it's precisely why Polanski's hybrid of dogged accuracy and his own existential touches endures as one of the better Shakespearean adaptations out there.

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