Filmhouse Edinburgh

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 Complicité) 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

Roma

18/12/18

At first, our aims are simple enough. We want to view Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma on a big screen, rather than on the iMac that is the closest thing we have to a TV – but finding a cinema in Edinburgh that is actually showing this Netflix Original is problematic. Then we discover that The Filmhouse has managed to obtain it for a few days, so we book seats. Our first attempt to view it is effectively snookered by a badly-timed power cut in our area and it takes some pretty frantic rejigging to get ourselves booked in for the following day, but we manage it; and I’m happy to report that the effort is worthwhile, not least because of the film’s stunning deep focus black and white cinematography (Cuaron acting as his own DP in the absence of regular collaborator, Emanuel Lubezki), but also because the film’s catharsis is so powerful when it finally hits, that I sit in the darkened cinema quietly sobbing away.

This autobiographical story is set in the early seventies in the Colonia Roma district of Mexico City. It concerns a middle class family and their young, live-in maid, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) who goes placidly through her daily grind of washing clothes, preparing food, and wiping up the seemingly endless mounds of dog poo deposited by the resident mutt, whilst giving as much time and attention as she can, to the family’s four children. For the first twenty minutes or so, this is pretty much all we see and beautifully filmed though it is, I find myself wondering what all the fuss is about. Why all the Oscar buzz? But then, more important issues begin to rear their heads and pretty soon, the film is stretching its muscles and I am totally hooked.

The first incident of note is when the father of the family, university lecturer Pepe (Marco Graf) goes off to a conference in Quebec and decides not to return to his wife and children. In the ensuing uncertainty, his wife, Sofia (Marina de Tavira) struggles to make ends meet and hides the truth from her kids, telling them that Pepe’s work in Canada is taking longer than expected, even though he is occasionally glimpsed running around the city with his latest conquest. Cleo, meanwhile, becomes emotionally entangled with Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), an aggressive young man who is obsessed with martial arts. It’s clear that the relationship is going precisely nowhere but before that realisation sinks in, Cleo is confronted with an unforeseen problem of her own.

As the film steadily unfolds, so events become ever more dramatic – there’s a New Year’s Eve forest fire, that must be coped with by a collection of (mostly drunk) party guests – a violent student protest that is bloodily overpowered by the local military – and a heart-stopping sequence in a hospital where the mounting drama of a situation spills over into absolute tragedy. Through the escalating chaos, Cleo moves with incredible calm and dignity and Roma is quite clearly a love letter to her, (or rather, to ‘Libo,’ the real life woman who cared for the young Cuaron and his siblings), showing that despite her perilous position as an employee, she is an important member of the family unit, indeed, the very hub around which it operates. Aparicio’s performance is extraordinary. A schoolteacher, who has never acted before, she is quite simply enchanting in the central role and it will be interesting to see where she goes from here.

Roma is undoubtedly a slow-burner, but it’s lovingly and lavishly mounted, the era evoked in a whole series of scenes that capture the essence of what it must have been been like to live in 1970s Mexico. It’s interesting to note that one sequence depicts a family visit to the cinema where the film on the screen is Marooned, a low budget space adventure that was clearly a huge influence on Cuaron’s blockbuster, Gravity. There’s every reason to suspect that Roma could very well be rewarded with a gong at next year’s Oscars, an occurrence that would  undoubtedly raise interesting questions about the future of movie-making itself.

Meanwhile, if no cinema near you is showing it, then do watch it on the biggest TV you have access to. It’s a fabulous piece of work and proof, if it were needed, that Cuaron is one of our most interesting and gifted filmmakers.

5 stars

Philip Caveney