The Criterion Collection - Macbeth (1971) - Blu-ray Review

'Experiencing Macbeth via the Criterion Collection's newly restored Blu-ray edition showcases two of its strongest assets: the locations and cinematography'.

If, like me, you studied Macbeth whilst at school during the 1990s, the chances are Roman Polanski's adaptation of Shakespeare's play was the version you were shown in whole or in part, probably via a well-worn VHS cassette played on a bulky TV and VCR wheeled into the classroom on a sturdy metal trolley. For many of my generation, Polanski's film may have been their first experience of Shakespearean cinema; revisiting the film in its 35th anniversary year, it's clear that we could have done a great deal worse.

Experiencing Macbeth via the Criterion Collection's newly restored Blu-ray edition (as opposed to the fuzzy video tape of the '90s or the vanilla DVD release the film received in 2002) showcases two of its strongest assets: the locations and cinematography. Polanski and cinematographer Gil Taylor provide both sweeping landscapes and credible castle interiors for their version of the tragedy to unfold within. The director also relishes several of the story's supernatural elements, infusing a number of sequences with both chilling horror style and unsettlingly surreal execution.

These fantastical parts notwithstanding, Polanski's Macbeth largely opts for a realistic portrayal of medieval Scotland. True, there's barely a Scottish accent to be heard, and the director's choice to put across most of Shakespeare's soliloquies as internal monologues through voiceover becomes a little tiresome at times; but Polanski's efforts to have the film take place in a believably gritty historical setting on the whole works very well. Macbeth is regularly at its best when at its most brutal, with the opening scenes set in the bleak aftermath of battle setting the tone superbly. The director isn't afraid to let the blood flow whenever the story calls for it, with several claret-soaked deaths on offer throughout.

The most notable issues within Polanski's film are those which haven't aged all that well. Whilst John Finch and Francesca Annis provide a satisfying Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, some of the other performances now come across as a little overripe. Keep an eye out for none other than a young Keith Chegwin as Fleance delivering a delightfully old-fashioned musical number during an early scene too.

The armour-clad fight scenes during the climactic final battle also suffer a little from coming across as almost comedic in their execution. It's a fact surely not helped by Monty Python And The Holy Grail being released only four years after Polanski's film, but the director deserves to shoulder some of the blame for this nonetheless. But, whilst there may be minor elements that come across a little dated, they don't prevent Macbeth from being a largely successful and impressive adaptation of Shakespeare's tragedy.

The Criterion Collection edition of Macbeth is available on UK Blu-ray now.

By Ben Broadribb. Ben is a regular contributor to Film Intel, having previously written at Some Like It Hot Fuzz. He is normally seen in the wild wearing t-shirts containing obscure film references. He is a geek, often unashamedly so. He's also on and Twitter.

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