In 1969, Roman Polanski’s pregnant wife Sharon Tate was murdered by members of the Manson Family. When Polanski chose as his post-Manson project what is arguably Shakespeare’s most disturbing play, critics thought they knew what to expect and responded accordingly. Seen today, Macbeth is dark, malignant, shot through with the most upsetting and gut-wrenching violence you will ever see in a major-studio release — and it’s also one of the finest film versions of the Bard. Polanski made the play his own, incorporating it neatly into his body of work without lessening its impact.
This Macbeth (Jon Finch) is young and opaque, a man whose throes of guilt aren’t quite convincing. Polanski is after something more distressing than murdered sleep. He humanizes the victims, not the various killers (an understandable approach for him at the time); that’s why we feel each stabbing and bashing so intensely. By the end, we root for Macduff to go kick Macbeth’s ass — and, of course, he does, in a clanging, exhausting swordfight that climaxes with a truly shocking decapitation.
In keeping with the Polanski tradition of complex female characters, Francesca Annis creates a Lady Macbeth who looks and acts soft yet is capable of the coldest schemes. The men are locked into cycles of violence. Polanski may be saying that even kings or would-be kings share the same animalistic DNA as Manson and his followers. The violence is far from the airborne, romanticized stuff you see in something like 300; when Macbeth unsheathes his dagger and slices open a man’s face, the man gasps and clutches his now-ruined cheek before Macbeth finishes him off. It’s that gasp that makes you wince. You don’t need to see the blood; Polanski has made you feel the man’s pain. The prevailing mood of this Macbeth is disgust, not remorse, and many Shakespeare purists loathe it. But movie lovers who feel there’s more than one way to approach the plays should take a look (albeit through their fingers).