Roman Polanski’s adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth is presented on Blu-ray by Criterion in its original aspect ratio of about 2.35:1. The new high-definition transfer is delivered in 1080p/24hz on this dual-layer disc.
Having only experienced the film on VHS previously the Blu-ray is a bit of a shock. What I remember as a dirty looking, very worn film has had some new life shot into it. Though still a relatively dreary looking film colours manage to look quite vibrant and rich, with rather vivid reds, oranges, and yellows throughout. Black levels are also nice and deep, and shadow delineation is excellent. The image is (as one would hope when compared to VHS at least) much, much sharper, delivering a superb amount of detail in every shot. The details in the castle walls, costumes, and various exterior settings are extraordinary, and the various textures are cleanly rendered and natural. The film is fairly grainy but doesn’t come off noisy or pixilated, and there are no other artifacts of note.
The print is in rather good shape, with only a few minor blemishes remaining, limited more to a spec here and there. Far sharper and more filmic in presentation, the film is a whole new experience for me. 9/10
All Blu-ray screen captures come from the source disc and have been shrunk from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and slightly compressed to conserve space. While they are not exact representations they should offer a general idea of overall video quality.
The listing of supplements may look sparse but this release manages to pack in a lot of content, starting with a 61-minute exclusive making-of, Toil and Trouble: Making Macbeth, featuring interviews with director Roman Polanski, producer Andrew Braunsberg, assistant executive producer Victor Lownes, and actors Francesca Annis and Martin Shaw. For a talking-heads supplement it’s a surprisingly involving one, aided by the humourous and engaging interviewees. After explanations on how everyone initially met the segment concentrates specifically on the production, starting with how Lownes convinced Hugh Hefner of Playboy fame to make Macbeth their first production (something he’d have to do again when more money was needed) and Polanski’s and Kenneth Tynan’s adaptation of the original play and the departures they made from tradition to make the play more film friendly, like making the lead couple much younger. There were of course many production issues, primarily the weather, which delayed things and almost got Polanski fired, and there were many limitations because of the budget. Polanski even admits to its shortcomings, wishing he could have been able to make it today with the technological advances. There are plenty of anecdotes, such as one about where a constant quote used on set (“take the fucking goat and split”) came from, and the producers all address the film’s less-than-stellar reception, which they admit may have been because of a.) the Playboy link, causing many to think the film would be low class, and b.) the overtly violent nature of the film, which many questioned since it was Polanski’s first film since the murder of his wife, Sharon Tate. It’s a fantastic, openly honest reflection on the film and its production with some great, surprising details.
Polanski Meets Macbeth is a 47-minute promotional piece filmed during production. With it taking a more observing approach, we see the staging of a variety of sequences and Polanski working with his cast and crew, clearly showing his attention to detail. He can sometimes seem flustered but he does work with everyone, doesn’t fight them. Thrown in here are interviews with various members of the cast and crew, including the extras. Surprisingly the footage, presented in high-definition, looks to be in great shape.
A 1971 interview with Kenneth Tynan taken from an episode of The Dick Cavett Show. Tynan talks about the controversies surrounding his production of Oh! Calcutta! and gets very passionate about his stance against censorship, while also sharing humourous stories about his daughter and her maybe-boyfriend. The last part focuses on Macbeth, which would have probably been just finishing up production around the time of this interview, and the changes they had made, making a note that he thinks most performances of the play are a disaster (hence its notoriety of being a cursed play). With a very dry wit Tynan makes for a wonderful and entertaining interviewee.
The supplements have so far been very engaging and entertaining, but this next feature may be my favourite. In an excerpt from an episode of the television show Aquarius recorded in 1972, Polanski and theater director Peter Coe discuss their two adaptations of Macbeth, Polanski on his film (naturally) and Coe on his stage production called Black Macbeth, which has been reworked to take place in tribal Africa. The two talk about the origins of their respective productions and similar scenes are compared between the two. Though this element on its own is fascinating what really picks it up is when the two start talking about the advantages/disadvantages of their respective mediums. What’s somewhat obnoxious is that it appears the host and Coe are talking down to Polanski, as if his medium is the lesser of the two art forms, but Polanski doesn’t put up with it, particularly when they get into how the language is presented. Polanski, though he retains a lot of the dialogue (not all) chose to convey more through visuals and body language, so he doesn’t stick entirely true to Shakespeare’s play, but argues that people need to understand it or else it will become “boring.” Most amusing is when they’re both asked to talk about the themes in the story. Coe carries on in some babbling discussion about murders and such, while Polanski ultimately says “I haven’t a clue.” It’s a particularly strong supplement and a fantastic find on Criterion’s part.
Two theatrical trailers are also included, including one specific for the Playboy Theatre (also touting a remodel) and then one for general release. The included insert then features an essay by Terrence Rafferty, focusing on Polanski’s visual language, somewhat comparing to Olivier’s own Shakespeare adaptations. It also looks at the film’s original critical reaction.
Throughout the supplements there’s a lot of discussion about Macbeth probably being Shakespeare’s most “film-friendly” play and a certain wonderment as to what he would have written had the medium been available to him then. Surprisingly there isn’t a new scholarly supplement looking at this or maybe something on Shakespearean film adaptations as a whole—other than the essay in the insert there isn’t even anything academic about the film. This is disappointing, considering how the film has seen a sort of reassessment over the years, but the supplements we do get are all quite engaging and informative about the film’s production itself. 8/10