Let's start with the Manson murderers, because it seems that everyone feels the need to mention them when talking about this film. Pauline Kael herself likened the infamous slaying of Macduff's wife and children to the real life tragedy, referring to the bodies as no longer human but "pieces", "scattered" round like a "chicken yard". Well, Polanski may or may not have deliberately mirrored the two, but in any case the scene would have remained as an integral part of the violent takeover of Macbeth. Others might draw comparisons to the moral degeneracy of the characters or the bloody gore and graphic violence, never mind the fact that 11th century Scotland contained far more than any screen might allow, and a fair share of nudity to boot. If there are personal foundations in the film they remain deeply buried within Polanski himself, and a few splatters of fake blood could never truly account for that.
It is nevertheless a gloomy and miserable experience for most. Not even the splendour or status of a king can fully combat the elements (partly due to Macbeth's insistence to remain at his own seat), and much of the establishing wide shots seek to portray this; an ugly grey castle sitting atop a twisted hill, with miles and miles of icy grassland and nothing pushing against the dismal clouds. The opening battle takes place is what is basically a swamp, and no shot is complete without a heavy dose of mist, smoke or wind, the sun rarely managing to pierce through. The insides of the great castle are much the same - cold walls and colder inhabitants getting by, and even the brief elation of the king's visit is drowned out by a rainstorm. Their whole existence is akin to the flickering candle in the wind and rain; try as they might to resist with music, dancing and a warm dose of Scottish merry, the light never quite reaches the edges of the frame.
If Polanski has gone for atmosphere then he has also gone for characters that do not quite fit them. The casting of young Finch and Annis seems to favour spirit and impulsivity over wisdom. Polanski wants them to burst from the seams of the dreary Scottish wasteland, and be utterly consumed by lust of each other and more importantly, power. But the performances don't follow suit. Instead of dramatic performance he opts for internal monologue, so their physical youth and beauty is not nearly the factor it should be. Worse, when they do speak Polanski insists on constantly moving the camera to show off his shadows and set design, as well as having the actors turn their back on us. When Finch wrests with the love of Duncan from the peasants, imagining their tears if he was slain so immeasurable that not even the rain could compare (as the storm drips on, a nice touch), he doesn't seem to know whether he should face the camera or look away from it, and spends the whole soliloquy awkwardly nodding back and forth. And there is the infamous naked sleepwalking of Lady Macbeth, which demonstrates the error in casting Francesca Annis. She's too frozen and stilted in the face and lips, so Polanski has to show off her body to compensate, but does it clumsily, and doesn't enable her to use her physical beauty to her advantage. She's much too pretty to be whispered grotesquely about wanting her womb to be ripped and unsexed, and the encounters between husband and wife are not filled with urgency and desire. Instead of leaping and clawing at each other Finch carries her up the stairs like a new bride over the threshold, which only demeans her character further.
The action has been described as ugly and awkward, to a degree unrehearsed, which lends to its authenticity. Certainly the final duel is staged along these lines, the sword swings heavy and erratic, the stances stumbling from the blows, the shots a little on the dirty side (they utilise the kick quite well). But veering too much towards that side of authenticity and 'grit' can result in something completely out of the ordinary: unintentional comedy. Macbeth's stolen crown falls off during the fight, and midway he staggers from a blow, and sits for a breather to clutch at it and desperately place it back on top of his head, as if trying to reassert the last remaining vestiges of his power. We can understand the meaning behind this action, but the way the fight pauses and focuses onto it immediately breaks any tension that Polanski had accumulated. And for all the ugliness of this duel, we have the fight before it, where the apparently invincible Macbeth (in his mind) prances and sidesteps his way through a soldier's attack before allowing the defeated to fall back into his own arms, stab him in the neck, and whisper dramatically into the ear: "Thou werest born of woman." Is this medieval warfare, or ballet recital?
Still, one change that Polanski has conjured up is inspiring. The end recalls the beginning, where the oft forgotten second son Donalbain once again rides through fog and mist to meet with the three witches who will bestow upon him an equally deadly premonition. By luring another man of similar stature into their web, Polanski denounces any glory or significance that the late Macbeth might have acquired in his brief tyranny. It suggests that this lust can creep around and into other men's minds, and that is has ruled and dictated our actions for many years past. That man became Donald III of Scotland, who laid siege to Edinburgh and seized the throne after his brother Malcolm's death.