Toby Baldwin's Film Review Home

7 out of 10

Polanski's Macbeth is bleak, violent, and increasingly ugly. But if you don't mind excessive gore, see it, especially for the dynamite rendition of Act V, Scene 5. Rating: 7 out of 10.

NOTE: The following is an essay I wrote for a Shakespeare Tragedies class in May, 1999. It focuses strictly on comparing one scene in the play to Roman Polanski's retelling of it in his 1971 film. I hope that by reading it you will be able to tell whether you would want to watch Polanski's film version. I like a lot of the things he does in it. I think the witches are great--the opening scene knocks me out! In general, the actors in this movie outdo themselves (check out the rest of the underwhelming career of Jon Finch; Francesca Annis hasn't fared much better, either). Polanski throws in nifty visual cues (such as the dagger in the "Is this a dagger I see before me?" scene) that put his own twist on the story without just plain mangling it. On the down side, he uses a ton of (nonsexual) nudity that does nothing for the film. The violence is way over the top, particularly in the slaying of Macduff's family, and pretty much the entire final act. It is a bleak and brutal film, increasingly so as it goes along. Perhaps Polanski was, in some creepy way, exorcising some demons left behind from Sharon Tate's murder (I've heard it suggested that Polanski purposely had Francesca Annis made up to resemble Tate in this film). All of that aside, the scene I discuss below, which takes place just before and after Lady Macbeth's death, absolutely rocks! Fans of Polanski or enthusiasts of the play should NOT miss this version of the scene. Without further ado...

Most modern directors adapting William Shakespeare's plays for today's cinema audience skip or drastically alter vast portions of text in order to make the story more accessible. However, Roman Polanski's 1971 version of Macbeth clarifies and emphasizes certain aspects of the story while rarely resorting to such wholesale word-chopping. In Act V, Scene 5, for example, Polanski omits only nine of the 59 lines of text, and makes a handful of other word changes, mostly modernizations of archaic language. Despite this high degree of faithfulness to Shakespeare's text, through minor additions and changes, Polanski's Scene 5 gives Lady Macbeth a much larger role than does that of the original play. By increasing her presence in the scene, he adds to the continuity of the story, emphasizes the building sense of the horror of both the events in the play and of Macbeth's behavior, and counters the phenomenon of the disappearing heroine found in several of Shakespeare's tragedies.

Polanski's most significant departure from the original play consists of the addition at the beginning of Scene 5 of a new segment in which Lady Macbeth, weeping bitterly, reads aloud Macbeth's letter from the opening act. In the play, she reads aloud the entire letter in the opening act (I, v, 1-14), and does not repeat it. Polanski has her read only from "'Hail, King that shalt be!'" (9, 10) to the end of the letter in Act I, after which she places the letter in a metal box in her chamber and goes outside to give the famous "Unsex me here" speech. In the film's version of Act V, at the beginning of Scene 5, she opens the box, pulls out the now well-worn letter, and reads aloud its entirety. This provides a full-circle sense to the tragedy. It takes the viewer back to the beginning of the story and reiterates how the horrible chain of events got started. By Lady Macbeth's sobbing as she reads it, and in the raggedness of the letter which implies many repeated readings, Polanski shows her not so much mad as consumed by remorse for what they have done. By pulling Lady Macbeth into a scene which the original text does not have her appear at all, he tightens the continuity of the play by reminding the viewer where the protagonists have come from and how they got there. Lady Macbeth's obvious regret serves to remind us of the foolishness of the choices that led to the rapidly-declining current situation, thereby strengthening the moral of the tragedy.

In addition to his added footage of Lady Macbeth at the beginning of Scene 5, Polanski continues to deepen the awfulness of the events in the scene by keeping her present throughout. The original text of the scene only mentions her once in Seyton's announcement of her death. Even most of Macbeth's long-winded reaction, beginning in line 19, could be taken more as a statement about life in general than his wife's death. Polanski takes the scene in quite the other direction. Beginning with "To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow" (19), Polanski uses the voice of Jon Finch, the actor portraying Macbeth, to speak the lines while the mouth of the character does not move. Polanski accompanies the first part of the voice-over (19-22) with the vision of Macbeth descending the stairs to view his wife's body. He has the actor speak the line "Out, out, brief candle!" (23) aloud ('live,' not in voice-over), while gazing at the gruesomely twisted remains of Lady Macbeth, and then glancing up toward the tower of the castle from which, the viewer infers, she has jumped to her death. This visual representation, in gruesome detail, of events not clearly stated and definitely not graphically depicted in the original scene, provides a grim answer to the question left open by the text of whether she kills herself, thus serving Polanski's purpose of interpreting the scene in the darkest way possible.

Almost as horrible as the explicit, gory depiction of Lady Macbeth's death scene in Polanski's Scene V is the icy manner in which his Macbeth reacts to it. Having Macbeth speak while looking at his dead wife makes the "candle" a reference to her, whereas in the play, in which he doesn't leave to go look at her body but stays where he is pontificating about the meaninglessness of life, the "out, brief candle" could be taken to mean his own life, or life in general, or perhaps even time. But Polanski applies the line, on the surface, at least, to Lady Macbeth's death, and has Macbeth speak it perhaps as a eulogy, but certainly as his only farewell to his former "dearest partner of greatness" (I, v, 11). He speaks the line flatly, with virtually no expression of emotion toward the lady with whom he was even affectionate and in Act I, clearly showing the lack of natural emotion in his present state. Through combining the image of the dead Lady with Macbeth's almost indifferent reaction to it, Polanski invites the reader to share in the bloody horror of her death and makes it possible to even despise Macbeth for his coldness.

In addition to the thematic elements enhanced by the way Polanski focuses Scene 5 on Lady Macbeth's fall, it also remedies a classic Shakespearean plot-quirk: the disappearance of the heroine. In several of Shakespeare's tragedies, the heroine dies, the hero mourns briefly for her, and then the play goes on with little or no mention of her. The hero seems to all but forget the woman who was the love of his life, and not much in the play prevents the audience from forgetting right along with him. In addition to Lady Macbeth in Macbeth, this occurs to some extent with Ophelia in Hamlet, and to a much greater extent with Portia in Julius Caesar. Some modern readers of Shakespeare find his treatment of women hard to cope with, and this almost offhand manner with which he sometimes kills them and writes them out probably contributes to the problem. Polanski, however, wasn't about to let that happen in his Macbeth. His wife's murder by the Manson family seems to have remained foremost in his mind and affected his telling of the story, for he takes an almost cursory handling of Lady Macbeth's death and makes it central to his story--his bloody, horrific story. He isn't about to let the dead queen be so easily forgotten.

Polanski's Macbeth provides a remarkable example of how much one can infuse their own viewpoints into the telling of a story while making barely any overt changes to the text. He accomplishes the goals of tying the story together more securely, emphasizing the hideousness of the events in the story, and showing the viewer how monstrous Macbeth has become, all by increasing the presence of Lady Macbeth in Act V, Scene 5. She becomes in many ways more central to the scene than Macbeth himself. Her letter-reading scene and a shot of her broken body lying on the cobblestones, covered by a dingy sheet, bookend the scene with images of her. Her sobbing as she reads the letter shows concretely how badly the situation has deteriorated, and her mangled corpse embodies the horror which Polanski emphasizes throughout his film, all without adding a single line of his own.

Warning: I consider this film unsuitable for children of any age.

Year: 1971
Director: Roman Polanski
Running Time: 140 minutes
Rated R by the MPAA, ostensibly for brutal violence and several instances of (nonsexual) full-frontal nudity.

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Review copyright 2002 by Toby Baldwin

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