The Human Voice reviewed by Charlie Hughes

Cinemas rarely find room for short films amid the feature blockbusters, which is why the wide exhibition of Pedro Almodóvar’s 30-minute wonder is a rare milestone. Almodóvar (director of Talk to Her and Pain and Glory) makes his English-language debut by loosely adapting Jean Cocteau’s 1930 play, teaming with the supremely elegant Tilda Swinton for a brief yet richly realised delight.

Swinton commands the screen as the character simply referred to as ‘Woman’, who wanders her apartment awaiting a phone call from a lover who has abandoned her. The bright red colours of production designer Antxón Gómez echo the women’s anxieties, which turn into desperation as the phone remains silent. In a playful and enigmatic nod to the film’s theatrical origins, a jarring overhead shot reveals the apartment to be a set within a sound stage, perhaps suggestive of the artificiality of the woman’s existence trapped in the uncertainty of her relationship.

When the call finally does come (with wireless earphones replacing the telephone of the source material), Swinton delivers a tour-de-force monologue that affirms her status as one of Britain’s finest actors. In most scenes she is alone and the camera rarely leaves her face, expressing a sense of isolation with which we can all identify in the lockdown era. She also balances emotional volatility with steely defiance, showcasing the inner strength of her character that, according to Swinton herself, was missing from pervious adaptations of the play.

Yet, despite the source material, Almodóvar’s update never feels stagey. He brings to this adaptation his trademark visual style, injecting energy into every immaculately designed frame. This ensures that the film is, above all, a cinematic experience that rewards viewings on the big screen.

In the Q&A that follows most screenings, the filmmakers call attention to the ambiguity of the central phone call – is the woman really talking to someone, or is she just imagining their responses as a way of finally moving on? It is such intriguing questions that pervade the film. Short, but very sweet indeed.

Star rating: 4 stars

Book tickets for The Human Voice here