Macbeth Movie Madness, Round 2: Welles v. Williamson

As you (should) know (by now), we’re doing a March Madness-bracket style review of the many video adaptations of Macbeth. We’ve finished the first round and now we’re down to the elite eight…and today’s quarterfinal match-up:


the 1948 film, directed by and starring Orson Welles with Jeanette Nolan (the #7 seed)
the 1983 BBC Complete Works production, directed by Jack Gold with Nicol Williamson and Jane Lapotaire (the #2 seed)

Well, Pepper, how did we get here?

Cotton, in the first round, Welles won in a squeaky-squeak-squeaker over a classy and (but maybe overly?) sedate 2013 video capture of a stage production, bro, while the BBC version wiped the floor with a obviously overmatched 2006 modern-dress film version set in the corporate world. Corporate hacker hotties do not a Macbeth make, bro.

Each has its positives.

Welles’ is, even by its earlier production date, the more experimental. He plays with the script quite a bit, and for a purist that would be a negative, but you know me–purity is not necessarily what I’m looking for in an adaptation. The black-and-white cinematography is beautiful, but it’s not as if Welles had a choice as a director. His use of the camera, however, is his choice, and there are wonderful moments. Working with a short shooting schedule and a low budget, he blocked many of the scenes to run through on a single camera, sometimes moving, but mostly static, with the actors moving around and in and out of frame. If that sounds boring, you need to see the film. His use of focus and depth is a real asset here.

Not to be undone the Jack Gold-directed BBC version boasts a beautiful look as well. His, of course, is in color, and what color he uses: an almost painterly palette, it’s truly beautiful at times. Williamson is strong, a real physical presence, and he’s got the voice to match. The script edit is much more straightforward in this version, though he does do some interesting things during the supernatural section near the middle of the play.

This is not to say that everything in perfect in either. I’m not quite sure the whole pagan vs. Christian motif works in the Welles version, and it suffers from some less than stellar supporting performances. Welles’ Lady Macbeth is adequate, if not memorable. Which is better, I think, than being memorable for writhing around as if having an orgasm during the “unsex me here” speech…which is what we get in the BBC version.

I say Welles takes this quarterfinal match in a squeaker, his second in a row, but this one a huuuuuuge upset over a higher seeded foe.


Updated bracket: JPG | PDF

Next up, our number one seed from 1979, Trevor Nunn-directed, with Ian McKellen, takes on the 2014 capture of the stage production from Shakespeare’s Globe…

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