Blu-ray Review: Macbeth (1971)

STUDIO: Criterion | DIRECTOR: Roman Polanski | CAST: Jon Finch, Francesca Annis, Martin Shaw
BLU-RAY & DVD RELEASE DATE: 9/23/2014 | PRICE: DVD $29.95, Blu-ray $39.95
BONUSES: new and archival documentaries, vintage television segments, essay by Terrence Rafferty, more
SPECS: R | 140 min. | Historical drama | 2.35:1 widescreen | Dolby Digital 3.0 (Blu-ray) | English subtitles

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes):
Movie  | Audio | Video | Overall

Of all Shakespeare’s major works, none have been brought to the screen as frequently as Macbeth, the most well-known being Orson Welles’ 1948 version, Kurosawa’s 1957 samurai-styled Throne of Blood and Roman Polanski’s (Carnage, Rosemary’s Baby) 1971 whirl. That said, Polanski’s take on the “Scottish Play” is the finest filmed adaption of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy, and it returns in grand fashion in Criterion Blu-ray and DVD editions.

Macbeth movie scene

Jon Finch is Macbeth

Dark, violent, angry and, yeah, tragic, Macbeth is probably the most filmic of Shakespeare’s plays. It really has everything—murder, battles, witches, ghosts, beheadings, heated sexuality—and Polanski is more than eager to make it real and accessible on the big screen. Led by the unfamiliar young faces of Jon Finch as the determined warrior who would be king and Francesca Annis as his scheming wife (the twenty-something actors went against the traditional depiction the couple as middle-aged figures), Polanski’s Macbeth finds the performers delivering Shakespeare’s  prose with clarity and purpose, but never overshadowing the play itself (co-penned for the screen by the great English writer and critic Kenneth Tynan). The story plays out in a mud-caked medieval Scotland, a stormy, dreary landscape populated by battling armies, deceitfully prophetic witches…and a good-looking, murderously ambitious power couple. Polanski and company are equally ambitious, gambling and winning with their vivid, violent, period-specific presentation of the Bard’s most “unearthly” story.

Criterion’s director-approved Blu-ray offers a 4K digital restoration that enhances the authenticity and atmosphere of the location landscapes and adds oomph to the metallic clang of the battling warriors’ broad swords (not to mention an increased clarity to the words). The supplemental package includes three vintage pieces, two of them British. The first, a 1971 production featurette by Frank Simon, offers footage of Polanski and his cast and crew at work; the second is a brief segment from the 1972 British TV series Aquarius featuring Polanski and theater director Peter Coe talking about the play and its various adaptations. There’s also an interview with Tynan from a 1971 episode of The Dick Cavett Show.

The supplemental centerpiece is Toil and Trouble: Making Macbeth, a new documentary featuring fresh interviews with Polanski, producer Andrey Braunsberg, assistant executive producer Victor Lownes and actors Francesca Annis and Martin “Banquo” Shaw. Some fascinating bits are offered by the participants: Francesca Annis reveals she had a complicated nudity clause in her contract for a film that her children would go on to view at school years later; Lownes admits that Macbeth‘s being a “Playboy Production” (the first by Hugh Hefner’s empire) didn’t help the film’s rep with the snobby critical community, essentially dooming the British film from the start (it tanked in the U.S.); Shaw delights in remembering how Polanski would read parts of Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint to the cast and crew at the end of the day; and Polanski discloses that he considered Tuesday Weld (Once Upon a Time in America) and Marianne Faithfull for the role of Lady Macbeth.

Of the filmmaker’s then-controversial decision to have Lady Macbeth sleepwalk in the nude, Polanski is quick to dismiss the hullabaloo.

“Why not? People slept naked in those times,” reasons Polanski. “It’s a good idea and I like having good ideas.”


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About Laurence

Founder and editor Laurence Lerman saw Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest when he was 13 years old and that’s all it took. He has been writing about film and video for more than a quarter of a century for magazines, anthologies, websites and most recently, Video Business magazine, where he served as the Reviews Editor for 15 years.