Frances McDormand

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

The French Dispatch

23/10/21

Cameo, Edinburgh

The word ‘quirky’ could almost have been invented for Wes Anderson. Since his breakthrough with Bottle Rocket in 1996, the director has relentlessly followed the path less travelled. Along the way, he’s dallied with stop-frame animation and, in his live-action features, has developed a visual style used by nobody else in the business. Take off a blindfold in a movie theatre and watch ten seconds of any one of his films and, chances are, you’ll recognise his style instantly.

Now here’s the much-delayed The French Dispatch, a portmanteau made up of three short films, linked by a framing device. It probably has a valid claim for being the most Wes Anderson-like film yet as it employs all of the tics and, yes, quirks we associate with him: those bizarre doll house vistas; jarring cuts from colour to monochrome; weird frozen tableaux of action scenes – and characters that are as eccentric as they are amusing. And, of course, there’s also the WA repertory company, a seemingly endless supply of big-name actors, who seem perfectly happy to put their famous mugs in front of the camera, even if they’ve not actually been given much to do.

We begin at the offices of the titular publication, a New Yorker-style literary magazine that is itself an offshoot off a newspaper in Kansas, yet somehow has its headquarters at the top of a ramshackle building in the sleepy French town of Ennui-Sur-Blasé. It’s from here that editor Arthur Howitzer Jnr (Bill Murray) sends his various critics around the country to seek out and document stories of interest – and we are subsequently treated to three of them, all set in the 1960s.

First up we have the tale of convicted murderer, Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio Del Toro), who, inspired by his love for prison warden – and sometime model – Simone (Lea Seydoux), decides to express his love, by creating works of modern art in tribute to her. He inadvertently becomes a cause celebre. Next there’s the story of journalist Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand) and her dalliance with dashing young revolutionary, Zefferelli (Timothée Chalamet), whose rebellion against authority is played out as a literal game of chess. Finally, there’s the story of writer Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright), assigned to write a piece about celebrated prison chef, Nescafier (Steve Park), only to find himself caught up in a kidnapping drama involving the adopted son of the prison’s Commisaire (Mathieu Almaric).

The stories are dazzlingly told and the main theme here seems to be one of affection for an age that’s largely gone – a yearning for old-school journalism, when editors cared more about the writing than the money it might generate. Anderson – who co-wrote the story – also has much scorn to heap on the world of art, mocking the ways in which commerce waits greedily in the wings to get its hooks into the next big thing, qualities evidenced by Adrien Brody’s ruthless art dealer, Julien Cadazio. There’s some evident homaging going on here too. The second piece eerily captures the look of French new wave cinema – and did I imagine that little salute to The Twilight Zone’s Rod Serling?

I have to say that I admire The French Dispatch enormously, rather than love it. There’s always an element of grandstanding about Anderson’s work, a celebration of his own uniqueness that can sometimes feel a little too arch – and the parade of characters unleashed here are essentially caricatures rather than people I can believe in. Perhaps that’s entirely the point, but it’s a quality that can polarise audiences.

Suffice to say, if you’re a fan of the director, you certainly won’t be disappointed by what’s on offer here. This is Wes Anderson turned up all the way up to 11. And, in the unlikely event that it’s the first of his films you’ve seen, then enjoy the trip.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

02/01/18

Martin McDonagh is an interesting writer/director. His plays are always stupendous and his first foray into cinema, In Bruges, is a five star solid gold masterpiece (and one, incidentally, that just won ‘best Christmas movie’ in our recent ‘World Cup of Everything’ game). The follow-up, however – Seven Psychopaths – wasn’t anything like as assured. Indeed, in a recent interview, McDonagh (with refreshing honesty in a business not usually associated with that sentiment) admits that he took his eye off the ball during the making of it. Now Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri arrives amidst much muttering about potential Oscar wins. The truth is, it’s an interesting film but, sadly, not in the same league as In Bruges. Having said that, it’s still worth your consideration.

In the remote town of Ebbing, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) rents three billboards on a lonely stretch of country road and has them papered with three simple slogans. It’s been seven months since her daughter, Angela, was raped and murdered and, enraged by the lack of any progress in the resulting police investigation, Mildred has decided to start pointing the finger of blame, primarily at Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). He’s understandably miffed by this approach, particularly as he’s recently had a cancer diagnosis and knows that his days are numbered. But Mildred is not about to give up on her mission, even if it is set to make her and her son, Robbie (Lucas Hedges), the most unpopular people in the county. Meanwhile, openly racist policeman, Dixon (Sam Rockwell), is not above taking the law into his own hands…

As I said, this isn’t a perfect film but there’s plenty here to admire, not least McDormand’s searing performance in the lead role, brilliantly portraying a woman so obsessed with her daughter’s death that she’s willing to go to any lengths to obtain justice, no matter what the cost. Rockwell too, is splendid, managing to give his initially unsympathetic character some degree of redemption, and Harrelson delivers what just might be his best turn since Cheers. But there are plot strands here that don’t quite convince. Some of the minor characters are never fully developed and others seem to step in for one cracking scene and are never seen again. (I’m thinking here of the scene where Mildred exchanges some crackling dialogue with the town priest. It’s brilliant but it feels unresolved.) Likewise, Peter Dinklage’s turn as (as one character refers to him) ‘the town midget,’ a sweet-natured drunkard who carries a torch for Mildred. And is it just the presence of McDormand and that distinctive Carter Burwell score that make this feel eerily like an early Coen brothers movie?

Whether or not Oscar will come knocking for this film is debatable. Certainly if we’re talking ‘best actress,’ I for one wouldn’t be making any objections – I’ve long been of the opinion that McDormand is one of the best there is. But while this is a huge step up from Seven Psychopaths, it’s perhaps not quite the total masterpiece that many are claiming.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney