Macbeth is well known for being “the bloody play” in Shakespeare’s canon but up to this point, the visual poetry had been rendered in beautiful black and white. Orson Welles’ Macbeth and Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood undoubtedly convey the horror of the story, but beginning with the next adaptation, the heath would run red.
Let Grief Convert to Anger
The first film the director made after the brutal death of his pregnant wife Sharon Tate at the hands of the Manson Family, Roman Polanski’s Macbeth is an extraordinarily angry film. Made by a grieving man no doubt feeling the complex emotions involved with such a loss, including fear, rage, and guilt, Polanski later wrote “Sharon’s death is the only watershed of my life that really matters” and it shows in this film. For example, his Macbeth is filled with hanging imagery throughout. The witches bury a noose along with a severed hand holding a dagger in the opening moments, several opposing soldiers can be seen on the gallows during the battle, and the traitorous former Thane of Cawdor is hanged by his own chains. This is a direct reference to his wife’s murderers’ unspeakable deeds.
Polanski’s unimaginable grief was only rivaled by his rage at the media coverage of the events which he felt blamed the victims for their deaths. After a period of mourning, he poured himself back into his work and Macbeth was his chosen expression. The early sections of the film draws parallels between the Macbeths (ironically the most functional and passionate marriage in all of Shakespeare) and Polanski and Tate. They are depicted as young and attractive, popular hosts, and madly in love. As their treachery and tyranny take over, Polanski shifts allegiances and seems to equate himself to Macduff whose wife and children are murdered by Macbeth’s men, fueling his vengeance.
Life is cheap and death is brutal and unflinching in this particular horrible imagining. It graphically depicts several deaths that usually happen offstage, or offscreen for our purposes. King Duncan’s murder is bloody and brutal, and the bodies of his guards are shown savaged with one of them beheaded. Banquo puts up quite a fight before being felled with an axe to the back, his body kicked into a river by his murderer. The slaughter of Macduff’s children is seen over the screams of the female servants. Following his wife’s death from throwing herself from the castle tower, Macbeth looks stoically upon her broken and twisted body before donning his armor for the final showdown. Thinking himself invincible, he brings about the grisly end of several soldiers before facing Macduff in hand-to-hand combat. The sequence ends with the gory beheading of the tyrant at Macduff’s blade and the displaying of his head on a pike.
Of all filmed versions of Macbeth, this leans into the horror of the play most. Beyond the gore, the witches are truly terrifying, and Banquo’s ghost is a heart-stopping vision in fear and blood. The ambiguous ending in which Donalbain, the younger brother of Malcolm who now sits on the throne, goes into the witches’ hovel implies that the cycle of violence we have just seen is only beginning. It is a dark, horrifying, vicious, blood-soaked masterpiece nearly on a level with Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood. To me, it is the best of the direct adaptations of the Shakespeare play.
Blood Will Have Blood
Of the many adaptations of Macbeth made for television, the 2010 version directed by Rupert Goold starring Patrick Stewart may well be the best. It is certainly the bloodiest and most unsettling. The setting is moved from ancient Scotland to a 1930s netherworld version of Scotland under a Nazi-like totalitarian regime. The imagery of Macbeth on horseback before a red banner emblazoned with his own face is positively Stalinesque. Stewart plays Macbeth as something of a coward under the thumb of his wife. Kate Fleetwood as Lady Macbeth has a hypersexual, vampiric quality, not unlike a film noir femme fatale. These qualities are in the text for both characters but brought to a new level by these actors’ performances. After hearing the witches’ second prophecies, however, Macbeth becomes insanely overconfident and thinks himself indestructible. He buys into his own propaganda as did many a tyrant throughout history. He faces his final fate in uniform complete with bandolier and machine gun.
The witches are particularly disturbing in this version. They are puppet-masters, seeming to set key events in motion, even creating a sort of life-sized voodoo doll of Macbeth from medical equipment, an old coat, and a fallen soldier’s heart. They appear in various servant roles throughout the film: war nurses, kitchen assistants, servers at the banquets, and morgue attendants. The famous “double, double toil and trouble” incantation is presented more dramatically and disturbingly than in any other filmed version, and reanimated corpses are used to deliver their prophecies in this scene.
Other memorable variations on key moments include Christopher Patrick Nolan proving the adage that “there are no small parts” with his memorable performance as the Porter. The staging is even more uncomfortable than usual as it involves Macduff’s wife and children in the scene. The appearance of Banquo’s ghost is also incredibly dramatic and memorable. Usually, he sits quietly in Macbeth’s place. Here he steps up onto the table, shirt soaked with blood from his slashed throat, and towers before Macbeth, staring down at him.
Some may dismiss this version because it was produced for public television, but this is a grave mistake. It stands as one of the very best adaptations of the play ever put to film and, along with Polanski’s version, is most likely to please even the most hardened horror fans.
The Very Painting of Your Fear
Joel Coen’s first solo effort apart from his brother Ethan, The Tragedy of Macbeth is a unique vision of Shakespeare’s play, but in many ways brings us full circle to Welles. Like the 1948 film, it is cut to almost exactly the same length at about an hour and forty-seven minutes. Like Welles’s film, it is clearly influenced by the German Expressionists, particularly Robert Wiene (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) and F.W. Murnau (Nosferatu). This particularly shines through in the set design which is sparse and gives the feeling of a stage play while the way it is shot brings the intimacy of a cinematic experience.
The fact that the leads are older than usually cast for these roles brings a different dynamic to the text. On one hand, the kind of reckless ambition that overtakes the Macbeths seems more the domain of misguided, hot-blooded youth. On the other, older actors well serve the passages that examine the folly of such ambition and the futility of gaining the whole world yet forfeiting one’s soul. Denzel Washington’s delivery of the speech about his “fruitless crown” and “barren scepter” is inspired. It delivers the text of the pointlessness of his crimes along with the subtext of the couple having lost a child. It is all the more powerful because the couple is beyond the age of the possibility of having another child together.
The best examples of the advantage of age in the roles are found in two scenes in particular. One is Frances McDormand, who relishes the role of Lady Macbeth, delivering the “out damned spot” speech. It is an utterly chilling scene with her madness etched into every line and shadow on her face. The other comes after Macbeth learns of his wife’s death and delivers this famous soliloquy:
“Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
This brief speech is especially effective from the mouth of a great seasoned actor like Washington, the weight of life pressing heavily upon every syllable.
The supernatural is conveyed in unique ways throughout the film. Birds, a common motif of Coen films, are depicted as harbingers of the world beyond. We also learn that Macbeth’s visions of the witches and Banquo’s ghost may well be hallucinations brought on by a drug that Lady Macbeth slips into his wine goblet. The witches are depicted in a particularly imaginative way, performed by noted Shakespearean actor and contortionist Kathryn Hunter. She is sometimes depicted as a single character speaking in multiple personalities. Sometimes her sisters are seen as reflections upon a pool of water. Sometimes the three are shown together. Hunter’s performance is truly indescribable and must be seen to be believed. Ultimately, as great as the rest of the cast is, it is Hunter who steals the show.
There’s Daggers in Men’s Smiles
There is no doubt that Macbeth will continue to provoke fascinating takes on the material both on stage and screen. The play has become very popular for filmmakers over other Shakespeare texts in the new century perhaps because of the hubris we see in the current political climate. Macbeth lends itself well to explorations of such characters, motives, and actions. We are also living in an age of the antihero as we did in the 70s. Characters like Batman and the Joker, the more brutal Daniel Craig incarnation of James Bond, and even more conflicted versions of usually idealistic superheroes like Spider-man and Captain America reign supreme in our blockbusters. Macbeth is the king of the antiheroes, and we see reflections of him on our movie screens but also on our newscasts. As in the play, those who are today’s heroes become tomorrow’s villains. The sound and fury of this tale are still all around us and the dagger-filled smiles are still found everywhere we look. 🩸
Brian Keiper is a featured writer for Manor Vellum. Brian’s also written for Bloody Disgusting, Dread Central, F This Movie!, Ghastly Grinning, and others. Follow him on Twitter @Brianwaves42.
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