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If you are willing to trudge through the mire and muck, the pessimism and darkness, the grotesque and graphic violence, you’ll find a great artist and some of his best art.

DVD Review: ‘Macbeth’ (1971) – Criterion Collection

Written by Mat Brewster

It is often difficult to separate the art from the artist.  This is especially true when the artist has a very singular vision.  It is even more true when the artist’s personal life becomes embittered in controversy  and whose actions become repulsive to anyone with a pulse and an ounce of moral fiber.  Art get intertwined with its maker and when that makers humanity is blotted with blackened spots, it’s hard not to see the art smudged with darkness.Roman Polanski knows those foul waters well.  In 1977 he was arrested on charges of sexually assaulting a 13-year-old girl.  The trial was the circus one would expect and for various reasons we won’t get into here, Polanski fled to France before his sentence was doled out.  You can look up the details elsewhere, but what actually occurred with that girl has been debated about ever since.Whether guilty or innocent, it’s hard not to let Polanski’s personal life filter your experience with his art.  I’m generally a believer in accepting the art as it is without allowing the artist’s personal flaws taint it, but I recognize this is a near-impossible feat.

Macbeth was made years before the assault occurred and thus audiences at the time were not influenced by it.  However a different incident most certainly affected the art, the artist, and its audience. Two years before making this movie, his wife, Sharon Tate (who was eight-months pregnant at the time) was brutally murdered by the Manson Family.

It’s difficult not to think about that tragedy while watching Macbeth.  Polanski infuses Shakespeare’s play with darkness, unrelenting pessimism, and horrific violence.  It is also very difficult to watch.  If I may make an admission no critic should really admit – I was really rather bored in parts.  It starts off well enough. Macbeth (Jon Finch) meets the witches who prophesize he will become king.  He then (and forgive me for the 400-year-old spoilers) kills the actual king (Nicholas Selby) shortly followed by his friend Banquo (Martin Shaw).  But then the pace slows way down as the movie kicks into psychological mode.

One of the great themes of Macbeth is how ambition mixed with treachery and violence takes its toll on the soul.  Macbeth and his scheming wife (Francesca Annis) obtain their crown through blood and murder, but just as they succeed their sins begin to drive them mad.  It is a great play and in truth a rather good film, but man, Polanski allows it to get bogged down somewhere in the middle.  I’ve read the play and seen it on stage before, but I had a hard time following what was happening once the action slowed and the internal drama increased.  Things pick back up by the final act and it ends on a high note.

Polanski shot the film on location in Wales and England which gives it an authentic look and feel.  His color are muted and dark.  The whole film is dark, really.  There is a short scene when Macbeth walks across his courtyard to check on the sleeping (and recently murdered) king.  The yard is filthy, full of mud, animals, and shit, and Macbeth walks right through without pause or thought.  By the time he’s made it to the other side, the muck has soiled his garments, dirtying his robes from the bottom on up.  That’s not only a nice bit of realistic detail, but does nicely to sum up the general themes of the film.  Macbeth’s time is not tidy or clean.  There are no daily showers, corner laundromats, or conveniently placed bottles of anti-bacterial hand wash.  It’s a stinking, filthy world, and and you’ve got to walk right through it praying the stench doesn’t send you crashing down.

Usually adaptations of this tragedy play the witches straight.  They are wicked prophets foretelling the future as they see it, as it ever shall be.  But here they are played as tricksters.  They tell Macbeth’s future with a sinister wink as if they know how the story will end in disaster.  Or, perhaps they see no future at all but simply enjoy toying with the lives of men.  Polanski added a nice scene at the end where Macduff visits the witches soon after killing Macbeth and taking his crown.  Thus the cycle continues.

Roman Polanski is a controversial figure. His Macbeth was forged in tragedy.  These things no doubt influence the watcher, it certainly did me.  But the art stands, and if you are willing to trudge through the mire and muck, the pessimism and darkness, the grotesque and graphic violence, you’ll find a great artist and some of his best art.

Criterion has created a new digital transfer in 4K resolution from the original negatives.  I’m not sure you can see all that in the standard DVD version but it is a beautiful-looking transfer.  A great deal of the film is rather dark but depth and clarity are very good. Colors are sharp and beautiful.  There some minor contrast fluctuations but mostly they seem a part of the original film.  I noticed zero scratches, debris, or any other problems.

There is only one standard audio track, but is very good.  It has depth and clarity.  There isn’t a lot of action, but what’s there is dynamic sounding.  It’s a dialogue-heavy film and it’s all very clean and crisp.  I noticed no pops or cracks.

Criterion has once again done an admirable job with the extras.  Included here are a new hour-long documentary on the making of the film with most of the major creators taking part.  Also there is a 1971 documentary about Polanski adapting Shakespeare, plus an interview with co-screenwriter Kenneth Tynan on The Dick Cavett Show in 1971 plus an episode of the London Weekend Television series Aquarius where Polanski discusses his film and theater director Peter Coe discusses his own stage production of the play.  Terrence Rafferty wrote an essay about the film which is included with the DVD.

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