Alex Hassell

The Tragedy of Macbeth

01/01/22

Filmhouse, Edinburgh

I’m not sure what to make of the writing credit for this latest adaptation of Macbeth. The wording – ‘written for the screen by Joel Coen, based on the play by William Shakespeare’ – seems a tad… hubristic. Because this is mostly Shakespeare’s work, albeit deftly sprinkled with some movie dust. Coen’s direction here is sublime, and his pared back adaptation works really well. It’s just, y’know. ‘Play by William Shakespeare; adapted for the screen by Joel Coen’ would sit better.

But it’s my only real gripe (if I overlook the absence of a single Scottish accent in the, ahem, Scottish play). This is the best movie version I’ve seen – and I have seen a lot. Although Shakespeare never specifies the Macbeths’ ages, I’ve tended towards the view that they ought to be young: all that swagger and ambition and impatience. When they’re portrayed as middle-aged, something seems to be lost. Here, both lord and lady are actually old: they’re in their sixties; nigh on retirement age. And it all starts to make sense again: this is a last-ditch attempt to fulfil their dreams. Time and place “have made themselves” and the Macbeths can’t resist the temptation to finally realise their desires.

Shot in black and white, Coen’s Macbeth is a claustrophobic affair, with none of the epic battle scenes I’ve grown used to seeing in big-screen adaptations. Indeed, it feels very theatrical, the castle walls as contained and constraining as any stage could be. We rarely venture out of Macbeth’s castle; when we do, it’s into countryside so swathed in mist that very little is visible. This is a stripped back version of the play, shining a spotlight on the key elements and emotions.

Denzel Washington is magnificent as the flawed hero: this is a towering performance, at once imposing and accessible. We can believe in him as a good man corrupted by greed, unable to live with his own actions. Likewise, Frances McDormand gives us a Lady Macbeth we can understand: she’s not presented here as a temptress, leading Macbeth to his doom, but as his partner, his equal, persuading him to indulge in a shared fantasy. The consequences are as devastating to her as they are to him.

Kathryn Hunter – playing all three witches – is perhaps my favourite thing about this production. She’s a gifted physical performer, and lends the shape-shifting ‘weird sisters’ a wonderful unearthly quality. Again, Coen’s judicious employment of theatrical devices (it can’t be incidental that Hunter has worked extensively with Complicit√©) makes for a compelling and unusual movie; this is a successful hybrid.

Coen only deviates from Shakespeare when it comes to Ross (Alex Hassell). A minor character in the original play, he appears here as a Machiavellian schemer, sidling up to where the power is, with one eye always on what might happen next. He’s Iago; he’s Tony Soprano; he’s Dominic Cummings. The additional layer really works.

In short, this is a triumph. It lays bare the heart of Shakespeare’s play. So, proceed further in this business; be the same in thine own act and valour as thou art in desire, and get yourself to the cinema. This is too good to miss.

4.8 stars

Susan Singfield

Suburbicon

07/11/17

A recent viewing of the trailer for Suburbicon led me to observe that the film looked ‘Coenesque’ – so it comes as no great surprise to learn that is actually based around an abandoned 1980s Coen Brothers screenplay, which has been reworked by director, George Clooney and by screenwriter, Grant Heslov. Fans of the brothers grim, may notice a passing similarity to the plot of one of their finest offerings, Fargo. Having said that, this film steers its own course and certainly has plenty to recommend it.

It’s the 1950s and the titular Los Angeles community styles itself as a kind of dream home for middle America, proudly boasting that in its idyllic realm, there is no crime and everybody is welcome – that is until the Mayers family takes up residence. The Mayers , you see, are African-Americans and it’s soon made abundantly clear to them that the all-compassing welcome doesn’t actually apply to them. (It’s interesting to note that this part of the story is based on a real life family, the Myers, who suffered similar problems when they moved into a residence in Charlotteville Virginia in 1957). What starts as a few silent protesters balefully watching their home steadily builds until things degenerate into an all-out riot.

But while everyone’s focus is on the Meyers’ house, it’s clear that something very unpleasant is happening right next door. Young Nicky Lodge (Noah Jupe) is woken one night by his father, Gardner (a beefed up Matt Damon) who tells him that a couple of intruders are in the house and he is to do whatever they tell him. As Nicky watches dumbfounded, Gardner, his crippled wife, Rose and her twin sister, Margaret, (both played by Julianne Moore) are all chloroformed to unconsciousness, shortly before he is given the same terrifying treatment. When he wakes up, he learns that Rose has died – and pretty soon, his Aunt Margaret moves into the house to lend her support. Nicky gradually begins to understand that things are not quite as they seem…

One of Suburbicon’s strengths is that much of the story is seen from Nicky’s point of view and the growing realisation that he is living in a poisonous environment is expertly handled. His burgeoning friendship with young Andy Meyers (Tony Espinosa) is also nicely reined in, just two young boys getting amiably along, the message all the stronger for not being hammered home with a mallet. This being a Coen storyline, there are of course a couple of memorable villains (Alex Hassell and Glenn Fleshler, doing a kind of demented Laurel and Hardy routine) and there’s a nice cameo by Oscar Isaac as a snoopy insurance investigator.

As the story accelerates towards its conclusion, we head into Pardoner’s Tale territory, as everyone homes in on the lure of a huge insurance payout – but Nicky (and the Meyers family) are the only characters here who really deserve our compassion, and the film kept me rooting for them right up to the end.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney