Roman Polanski’s Scotland never beholds daylight, wavering between forbidding shades of dusk and dawn, its verdant earth buckling under torrents of frigid rain and stampeding horses. The grimness of the landscape correlates to the director’s rendering of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, a bellicose adaptation that is hermetic in both senses of the word, as engrossed in the intangible elements of the occult as it is enthralled by the isolation fostered by a paranoid mind. The dialogue and decor maintain a certain authenticity, capturing the verve of Shakespeare’s blank verse and the cavernous recesses of Macbeth’s chamber, but the ghastly visual components are purely Polanski’s, fashioning a feverish and phantasmagorical nightmare out of unbridled avarice and the burden of guilt.
Facets of the supernatural permeate Polanski’s film and he wisely employs Shakespeare’s coven of witches as the instrument for his macabre catalog of symbols. The opening sequence finds the trio of necromancers clawing at the sand beneath a ruby sky, burying a noose, dagger and severed arm in the wet beach, their emblems of malice obscured by a coat of heavy fog. The unseen battle that rages amidst this dense smog is clamorous, leaving behind only brutalized flesh, thoroughly unmasked by the unforgiving camera eye. As two victors, Macbeth (Jon Finch) and Banquo (Martin Shaw), trot past the clairvoyants, they are treated to a labyrinthine prophecy, discerning from the string of riddles and menacing cackles that Macbeth shall rise through the ranks to the Kingdom of Scotland.
The soundtrack enters the thoughts of Macbeth, reproducing the whisper of his internal monologue, the union of fear and elation moving from the annals of his mind to his lips as they curl into a smile. Despite his military prowess and obvious intelligence, he is crippled by anxiety, his musings circling him like a buzzard as he succumbs to “black and deep desires” and plots his predecessor's execution. A dagger hangs before our assassin like an apparition, guiding him to the King’s bedside through sharp musical cues and a glowing orb of light. As he straddles the resting monarch, he plunges the sharpened blade into his torso, severing the jugular vein and sending his crown and a stream of warm blood onto the floor below, spied only by the rich flicker of a wood fireplace.
Interiors are lit by flame or a rosy, artificial glow, creating an insular, unearthly atmosphere, one capable of transforming a king into a cutthroat by the shadows of its faint illumination. The photography bears a comparable soft focus on the fringes of each shot, lending images an illusory quality, unreliable and hazy like the deliberations of Macbeth’s poisoned mind. The ascension to the throne illustrates this subjectivity, adorning the new king in white robes as beams of sunlight sparkle through the end of his sceptre, bathing him in blinding light like the resurrected Christ. On the other hand, the drifting, mobile camera never mimics the potentate’s anxiety, trailing him like a passive observer until it springs forth to accompany one of his sensory hallucinations, manifesting his shame through levitating spectres and a dizzying procession of mirrors.
Polanski utilizes primary colors to represent guilt and fear, drenching Macbeth’s restless body in the sanguine light that pours through his bedroom window, paralleling his bloody reign. The deep blues of twilight also carry metaphorical heft, washing over the fallen Banquo as his corpse floats in a shallow pool of water, echoing the cold distance of a king willing to slay his most loyal subject. The spell conjured by this evocative shading and frenzied violence is amplified by the high-pitched squeal of Third Ear Band’s avant-garde improvisations, eliciting panic through blurts of oboe and shredded violin strings.
Far more concerned with fabricating a mood than accurately representing text, Polanski focuses on the physical expression of rage in the final act, typifying his artistic vision by linking internal torment to external aggression. His Macbeth exhibits a measured pace, but builds to an unbearable tension, marrying a lesson in humility to a study in existential dread and mortal cruelty.
Macbeth (Columbia Pictures, 1971)
Directed by Roman Polanski
Written by William Shakespeare (play), Roman Polanski (screenplay) and Kenneth Tynan (screenplay)
Photographed by Gil Taylor