Melbourne, Auhust, 10th, 2017 (Peter Malone). Below, find the first part of film critics written by Peter Malone for the month of August.
- ATOMIC BLONDE
- BABY DRIVER
- BEGUILED, The
- BIG SICK, The
- GHOST STORY, A
- GOD’S OWN COUNTRY
- KIKI. LOVE TO LOVE
- KING’S DECISION
- LADY MACBETH
US, 2017, 115 minutes, Colour.
Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman, Toby Jones, Eddie Marsan, Till Schweiger, Sofia Boutella, Barbara Sukova, James Faulkner,
Directed by David Leitch.
Cold War espionage. The ending of the Cold War. Coming down of the Berlin Wall… It sounds as if we are in John Le Carre territory. But, John Le Carre it ain’!. This is a film based on a graphic novel rather than a novel written graphically. The central characters are of the superhero, super-heroine, villain variety, sharply drawn, tough language, and fighting capacity in the kick-ass (or kick-front) school of combat.
Not that the situation doesn’t remind us of a Le Carre novel. It is 1989, Berlin. There are demonstrations in the East, protests, clambering on to the wall, support from the West. November – and by the end of the month the wall was down.
There is a particular crisis because a former Stasi official (Eddie Marsan) is about to defect, has a complete list of agents and counter-agents which all the powers are eager to get their hands on. The other valuable thing is that the agent has memorised the list completely.
In London, the espionage chiefs along with a CIA representative fear the list becoming available, endangering a great number of agents. They summon one of their best agents, Lorraine Broughton. She is played by Charlize Theron. And, with her bleached hair, she is the Atomic Blonde. Blondes can also be blonde bombshells and an atomic blonde bombshell is explosive. After her being Furiousa in Mad Max Fury Road, and after being the arch-villain in The Fate of the Furious, Charlize Theron is at home with tough roles, especially when they ensure that she is a star with graphic novel glamour, poise and sensibilities.
In Berlin she is to rendezvous with the local area chief, David Perceval, played with intensity by James McAvoy, also a graphic novel type, infiltrating in East Berlin, skinhead look, rough and ready, but an exceedingly shrewd operator.
Berlin isn’t exactly the city that one would have liked to have visited in November 1989. And this, especially so, if one knew just how many agents and double agents were prowling the streets, ready with weapons, brutal Russians, seductive French, self-confident Americans, and so many Germans themselves.
Actually, the film is shown in flashback, and seeing Lorraine at the end of her mission in Berlin looking very much the worse for wear, immersing herself in a bath of ice cubes, summoned to report to the British authorities for a debriefing, all taped. The preceding action is told in the flashbacks.
Needless to say, there are traitors, double agents, murders in the street, escape in joining the protesters (who all raise umbrellas at crucial moment to stop the snipers shooting). And, of course, there are suspicions all round. What about David Perceval? What about Lorraine herself? What about the authorities in London (James Faulkner and Toby Jones)? What about the CIA emissary (John Goodman)? What about the young contact in the east? What about the watchmaker in the West? And, after all that, it gets even more complicated in the last 10 minutes! And, of course, a twist.
The film was made in Budapest but has enough scenes of Berlin itself that tourists would recognise and be comfortable with. However, depending on one’s interest, whether one remembers the fall of the Berlin Wall or younger audiences wanting to know more about it, or whether one just wants action and plenty of kick-ass with Charlize Theron showing she is as good as any male counterpart, the film will be an entertaining, violent, sometimes kinky, immersion in the world of doubledealing espionage.
US, 2017, 112 minutes, Colour.
Ansel Elgort, Jon Bernthal, Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm, Eliza Gonzalez, Lily James, Kevin Spacey, CJ Jones.
Directed by Edgar Wright.
Wondering about the title Baby Driver, and hearing the Simon and Garfunkel reference during the film, it seemed worthwhile to check the lyrics of their song to get a feel for what writer-director, Edgar Wright, was imagining with this film:
They call me Baby Driver
And once upon a pair of wheels
I hit the road and I'm gone
What's my number
I wonder how your engines feel
Ba ba ba ba
Scoot down the road
What's my number
I wonder how your engines feel
Edgar Wright has a solid reputation, especially for his classics Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, his American graphic novel film, Scott Pilgrim versus the World (not so sure about The World’s End). He hails, from Britain, filming an American story in Atlanta, Georgia.
We are in no doubt about the ability of Baby as a driver, right from the start in his getaway car, manoeuvres and manipulation, rather breathtaking at times, through the streets of the city. In fact, throughout the film, there are more getaway escapades as well as an elaborate chase on foot through the streets, stores, amenities of the city.
So, who is this Baby Driver, a young man, tall, rather baby-faced, somewhat self-effacing, with his earplugs in all the time listening to quite a range of songs. It is explained later that in a childhood accident, with the death of his parents, he has tinnitus, continual ringing in his ears which he drowns out with the music. (In fact, the theme of hearing becomes prominent in the film as Baby’s foster parent is deaf, reads lips, and the two communicate with sign language – and the character, Joe, is played by CJ Jones who in real-life has hearing disability.)
Ansel Elgort has been in quite a few films, including the Divergency series as well as the romantic drama about terminal illness, The Fate in our Stars. On the strength of this striking and persuasive performance, he should be in strong demand for movies for quite some time. He carries the film and continually commands audience attention and sympathy.
But, whom does he drive for? The answer is generally-suave businessman, heist-controller, played in his familiarly sinister but genteel manner by Kevin Spacey. He has a rogue’s gallery of clients, especially the brutal Jamie Foxx as Bats, and Jon Hamm, very strong in films these days after his years in Mad Men, and Eliza Gonzalez as his partner, a trigger-happy couple.
The robbery sequences and, especially, the getaways, are violent, exciting, and, for the audience, adrenaline-pumping (and definitely not to be emulated in real life).
Actually, Baby is at the end of his contract with Doc and is hoping for a better life, especially with Debora, a sympathetic waitress in a diner with whom he strikes up a close friendship. She is played by Lily James, far away from both Downton Abbey and Cinderella.
Edgar Wright certainly knows how to make films. He can frame characters that bring them to more vivid life than usual. His editing and pace provide continual excitement and attention. And the dialogue, often combines humour and wit, and offhand movie references, with the serious matters.
The last part of the film might not be exactly what the audience is expecting, but its heart is in the right place, justices seem to be done, and depending on the box office (which should be huge), we might be seeing more of Baby and Debora.
US, 2017, 93 minutes, Colour.
Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, Oona Lawrence, Angourie Rice, Addison Riecke, Emma Howard.
Directed by Sofia Coppola.
The question the audience might keep asking during this film is who exactly is being beguiled – and by whom? And the question remains at the end of the film as the camera and the audience contemplate teachers and students behind the iron gate at this school for young ladies.
The setting is Virginia, 1864, the Civil War moving towards its end. At the school, definitely for the education of young ladies, in French, needlework, good manners with a touch of religious fervour (they are all presented as Catholics), life goes on with a remnant of students for whom returning home to their towns and families would be too dangerous. There are routines, lessons, working in the garden, music, meals, night prayer.
The school is run by Miss Martha Farnsworth, Nicole Kidman elegant and good-mannered. She is assisted by Edwina, Kirsten Dunst, who has something of a mysterious background. There are five students left, the oldest being Alicia, played with some precocious but ignorant flirtation by Elle Fanning. The other girls are younger (and Jane is played by Australian, Angourie Rice).
For many, the basic plot will be familiar from the 1971 film of the same name, directed by Don Siegel, with Clint Eastwood as the wounded Northern soldier, Geraldine Paige as Ms Farnsworth and Elizabeth Hartman as Edwina.
This time the soldier is played by Colin Farrell, Irish accent and all, explaining his migration, his enlistment, his running away, his leg being severely wounded – and he is found in the woods by the young Amy who has been collecting mushrooms. She brings the soldier to the school and Ms Farnsworth and the community have to decide whether to report the soldier to the Confederate authorities or not. His leg is tended, his wound stitched in close-up, he is washed – and eventually recovers.
And, of course, this is where the beguiling begins. In many ways John McBurney is beguiled by the women and the girls. And, each according to her age and awareness in such cloistered atmosphere, subconscious urging is rising to consciousness, is beguiled in her own way.
For a while, this seems to be an idyllic situation, John McBurney working in the garden to beautify the mansion and the grounds – which look very much like an old-style and plantation, filmed in glowing light, moss hanging from the trees – and, with all the women dressed in white, presented often in tableau framing, many audiences may well remember Picnic at Hanging Rock.
But, idylls do not last and the attraction and the tensions boil over with some tragic consequences.
The film is being written and directed by Sofia Coppola, whose films include The Virgin Suicides about a group of sisters who cannot face growing up, a modern kind of version of Marie Antoinette (both of these with Kirsten Dunst), as well as the famous Lost in Translation, the Hollywood story, Somewhere, and a film about wealthy and irresponsible young people, The Bling Ring. She has brought her own distinctive, often contemplative style, as well as exploring issues of relationships between men and women, and, especially, sexual beguilement.
THE BIG SICK
US, 2017, 120 minutes, Colour.
Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano.
Directed by Michael Showalter.
There has been a film, something of a classic, called The Big Chill. So, there is no reason that there shouldn’t be a film called The Big Sick – although that is not an immediately attractive title. But, there is no false advertising here, at the core of the film is a significantly big sick.
This is one of those films where a reviewer offers an initially cautionary note. There will be some audiences who are immediately attracted by the central character, Kumail, played by, who co-wrote the script. He is an immigrant, along with his parents and his brother and his brother’s wife who have come from Pakistan and settled in Chicago. While they have settled in Chicago, they certainly keep many of their Pakistani customs, closeness of family, meals together, food and tastes from the old country, and, to Kumail’s continual discomfort, arranged marriages (where mother announces during meals that some young woman has just “dropped in” – an audition for a potential arrangement).
Some audiences may find that intriguing from the word go and the discovery that Kumail tries to be a stand-up comedian in a comedy club.
But, the reviewer then needs to say that this is a film which will probably grow on the audience, as it allows us to know the characters better, not always admiring Kumail, but getting to know Emily (Zoe Kazan) whom we see first calling out to Kumail during his act, which he interprets as heckling and challenges her on it. But, before you can say Pakistan, they have gone to his apartment, a sexual encounter, relationship.
There are two more developments however. An insensitive breakup on the part of Kumail and a sudden phone call to let him know that Emily is in hospital. In fact, for most of the film, Emily is in hospital, in an induced coma, doctors puzzling over diagnoses, and Kumail having to stand in as an authority for Emily’s surgery though they have broken up.
The other central characters in the film are Emily’s parents, Beth and Terry, from South Carolina. They are played by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano, Holly Hunter always able to do the acerbic with some forcefulness and Ray Romano, possibly doing a variation on Everybody Loves Raymond, but very effectively, a good man, loving his wife and daughter, put upon, and trying to deal with Beth’s domination as well as decisions about his daughter’s surgery and prognosis.
Part of the drama is that Beth does not like Kumail at all – at all. She is brusque, wishing him away. She knows about the breakup and is very angry about it. Terry is much more sympathetic and appreciates what Kumail is trying to do. They eventually have some heart-to-heart conversations.
So, while Emily is in hospital in the coma, and Kumail is trying to fend off the continual visits of eligible girls who “drop in”, there is the story of Kumail and his attempts at stand-up comedy, various sets that he performs, and the group of friends that are continually trying out in the club. Audiences will enjoy the sequence where Kumail reluctantly invites Beth and Terry to the club and a very WASP member of the audience heckles – and receives the full brunt of Beth’s anger and disapproval.
Of course, the drama is the question of Emily’s illness, her possible recovery and, if she recovers, what will she think about Kumail because her last memories will be of breaking up with him and her being hurt.
It is not meant to be a spoiler because we read the credits at the beginning of the film but, in fact, the screenplay was written by Kumail and Emily. During the final credits, there are photos of the real characters, including the Pakistani family.
As has been indicated, this is a film which you need to give time to and it will very likely grow on you.
UK, 2017, 106 minutes, Colour.
Fionn Whitehead, Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Tom Keoghan, Harry styles, Aneurin Barnard, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowdon.
Directed by Christopher Nolan.
Yes, writer-director Christopher Nolan immerses his audience in the experience of Dunkirk.
By filming in 70 mm and so much available for IMAX screen format, this is a particularly vivid recounting of that fateful week in 1940 when an invasion of Britain seemed not only possible but imminent. The rescue of the British soldiers stranded on the beach in Dunkirk, across the English Channel, has become part of British history, World War II history, and part of a proud British heritage. It is almost 80 years since these events and younger and many older audiences will be not so familiar with them. Here is an opportunity to experience and learn.
While Christopher Nolan began his career with rather short and small-budget films, he is now best known for his more spectacular films, The Dark Knight series of Batman films, his most tantalising cinema exercise on dreams, Inception, and his exploration of space in the future in interstellar. In these latter films he has experimented with time and shifts in time (and, after all, his second film, Memento, had a trajectory which went from and to beginning).
Here are events with time and intercutting here. We are informed at the beginning of the film that the soldiers waiting on the beach at Dunkirk, the ships on the Mole, the authorities supervising while waiting and becoming more and more desperate, takes place over a week. Then there is a civilian boat leaving Dorset for Dunkirk experiencing the drama of war in the channel, which takes place over a day. And then there are battles in the air, two RAF planes countering the German attack, their bombardments and strafing, which takes place over an hour. This is demanding of the audience to appreciate the events of the week, of the day, of the hour.
The screenplay also uses the device of focusing on four particular characters who symbolise the numerous stranded Armed Forces as well as the civilians who, in the famous flotilla of private boats to the rescue, played such a heroic part.
The central character in the film is a very average and ordinary young British soldier, Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), seen trapped in the streets of Dunkirk, leaflets pouring from the sky, pursued by German guns (no German soldier is ever seen, rather heard with shooting), surviving, jumping over a wall, running towards the beach and finding the thousands there, lined up in files waiting for the boats. By concentrating on Tommy, the audience is able to appreciate the vast numbers, the fears, temptations to run away, devices to survive, like carrying a wounded soldier to a ship but being ousted, finding the hulk of an abandoned craft and a group hiding there, fired at by the Germans for target practice, stranded in the sea and swimming for life.
Kenneth Branagh is the naval commander, standing on the Mole, who represents the high command, concerned about the men, uncertainties about the rescue, thankful for the coming of the flotilla.
Tom Hard is one of the pilots, in the fragile planes yet with their manoeuvrability, the limits on fuel, the flight tactics of the Germans, the pursuits, communication with authorities and fellow pilot, seeing the downing of planes – and his own decision not to return home but to continue defending the ships and flotilla from attack.
There is a substantial role from Mark Rylance as a veteran seaman whose son has been killed already in aerial warfare, has his younger son on board along with local lad later symbolises the heroism of ordinary citizens, rescuing a shellshocked soldier from an upturned vessel, Cillian Murphy, coping with the rescued man’s fears of returning to war and wanting to turn back, some violence on his boat, yet his perseverance in effecting substantial rescues.
The cumulative effect of the film, the vastness of the cinematography, the extraordinarily insistent musical score with its range of instruments, pounding and pace, variations on themes by Edward Elgar, all make the film a substantial experience.
Dunkirk will probably take its place amongst the classic war films – and it is almost 20 years since Saving Private Ryan and the Normandy landings. The American film is a reminder that the British treat matters with a very stiff upper lip, which, though emotional, is not nearly as demonstrative, which means that in many ways Dunkirk seems a rather objective, while emotional, look at the events.
Yes, Churchill’s famous speech does come at the end – but, interestingly, is spoken by Tommy, representing the younger generation who are about to go through the Blitz and the Battle of Britain.
A GHOST STORY
US, 2017, 90 minutes, Colour.
Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara.
Directed by David Lowery.
Here is, definitely, a film to test audience responses and loyalties.
A ghost story is usually about spectres and hauntings and there is something of that here, including a book called A Haunted House, falling to the floor and audiences glimpsing some descriptions. But, this is not really that kind of film. And for those expecting it, with some excitement and horror to boot, they will be very disappointed and may well not last the distance (or even the first half hour).
A ghost story can also be a story about a ghost. And, on the surface, this is what that film is.
However, writer-director, David Lowery, seems to have been over-dosing on some of Terence Malik’s films, especially The Tree of Life, and is more interested in a cosmic exploration of the universe, of history, of time and relativity, of the meaning of life, than in providing any chills.
The basic situation is set up very slowly, a musical composer, Casey Affleck, and his wife, Rooney Mara, packing up and perhaps moving from their house. A clue is given when there is a very long sequence showing Rooney Mara carrying a chest out of the house, along a long the path, across the grass, to put it with other stuff from the house. Then, almost immediately, a scene showing the husband dead in front of the car, the windscreen smashed.
The husband is the ghost. One wonders why the decision was made to have him appear in the conventional, somewhat comic, disguise of a sheet (he arises from his hospital gurney) with two holes for eyes. For many it will be too reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan, Casper the friendly ghost as well as the mask for the villain of the Scream series. For most of the film this ghostly apparition lurks around the house – seeing a similar spectre with a sheet of floral design in a house opposite, waiting for someone to arrive.
The big test for an audience’s patience and attention is the wife coming in, being given a gift of a pie by a friendly neighbour and her beginning to eat it, sit on the floor, and continue to eat it, continue eating, more eating (giving inquisitive audiences time to wonder what kind of pie it is and for how long Rooney Mara had not been eating so that she could devour the pie in this very long single take).
At this stage, audiences will realise that they are being asked to be quiet, calm, reflective, contemplative – and many will not be willing.
Then, suddenly, the ghost observes different people in the house, a Hispanic mother with her children disturbed by of some poltergeist activity when the ghost angrily destroys crockery. Then there is a party with a character sitting at a table, speaking a monologue, speculating on the meaning of life, on the meaning of the universe, on human destiny… Quite a long speech which reassures the remaining audience that this is speculation about the meaning of the cosmos and existence.
The theme of the film is the ghostly presence for the future – with the demolition of the house, the building of a huge plant on the site, and the futuristic glance at a Cosmopolis in the vein of Blade Runner. But there is a ghostly presence in the past, going back to the site, a pioneer family with a wagon, the remnants of an attack by the Indians.
And back to where the couple started, moving in, his compositions, the piano, … the differences and the difficulties.
It would seem that this is a kind of cosmic purgatorial experience for the ghost.
GOD'S OWN COUNTRY
UK, 2017, 104 minutes, Colour.
Josh O'Connor, Alec Secareanu, Gemma Jones, Ian Hart.
Directed by Francis Lee.
At the end of this British drama, the audience may well be asking why is this part of Yorkshire, around Keighley, is God’s own country. For the Yorkshire family who work there on a cattle and sheep farm, it is often hard going, not as rewarding as they might hope. They might well ask how this is God’s own country. On the other hand, for the Romanian migrant who has left a hard and depressing country, this new land might well seem God’s own.
This is a farming story. The Saxby family have a spread of land, have a cowshed, sell a bull at an auction, are coming into the lambing season. The work is done by John, Josh O’Connor, who finds it a hard and lonely occupation. At home is his grandmother, Gemma Jones. His father, Ian Hart, has been disabled by a stroke but still makes demands on his son, supervising, criticising, especially when his son goes out at night to town to drink and for casual sexual experiences.
With the lambing season, they decide to hire a casual worker for a week and find the Romanian.
The description thus far in this review is fairly objective, describing what might seem a commonplace scenario. However, the Romanian expat is Gheorghe, Alec Secareanu, whom John initially dislikes, asking whether is Pakistani and, on hearing he is from Romania, calls him a gypsy which Gheorghe resents.
However, the audience has seen the sequence of John in town and his sexual liaison – with a young man at the pub. This means that the dynamic of the film and the relationship focuses on a gay man, his relationship with the casual worker who, it soon emerges, is also gay. What starts as a physical fight, changes into a physical coupling. And this leads to bonding, companionship.
The film takes for granted the sexual orientation of each man, simply presenting it is factual – although the two men do feel a need to conceal the relationship, even from the grandmother and father.
What we see is the relationship transforming each of the two men, the better parts of their personalities emerging. And the work on the farm goes better – until the father has another stroke and is hospitalised.
There is a very moving movements with the grandmother keeping vigil at the hospital, the father returning, even more disabled, limited in speech, but his son responding well to his father, a very caring bath sequence with the father able to say, thank you.
While the Romanian is very sure of himself, his orientation and its consequences, John experiences conflict, makes a gross error of choice, which leads to Gheorge’s dismay and departure and the challenging dilemma as to how John will handle the situation, whether he can cope, whether he is capable of apology, what his hopes are for the rest of his life.
The film does have some explicit moments, but it is a film which presents farm life, two men bonding and in a relationship and asks of its audience understanding and sympathy.
KIKI, LOVE TO LOVE
Spain, 2016, 102 minutes, Colour.
Directed by Paco Leon.
This is a comedy about sex and sexuality. And the various stories in it are to be found along the continuum from prudishness to permissiveness. But, it is a reminder that anything human, any human experience can be the subject of humour otherwise it is taken too seriously, put on false pedestal, while at other times it is taken far less seriously for crass entertainment.
There are five stories in this film and they are intercut. There is a young couple in love but she finds that she is aroused by the experience of being attacked, as she was at a service station. This leads to some serious talk between the couple but also to a farcical re-enactment when the girl breaks her fiancés nose in a set up attack. There is also a plastic surgeon whose wife has been in a car accident and is particularly bitter and frigid. He is aroused by seeing her sleeping so decides that he will drug her each night for his own satisfaction, she not aware of what has been happening. (They also have a Filipina maid who is wanting breast enhancement surgery and shrewdly uses her observations to bring down the price.). Another couple want to become pregnant and the wife gets advice from the doctor only to find that she is aroused by seeing her husband weeping, especially at the funeral of a friend.
The director of the film, Paco Leon, takes the role of a husband who goes with his wife to a therapist, discusses sexual problems rather frankly, experiments at home but the couple’s life is disturbed by a friend who works a sex club – which gives the audience the opportunity to blend prurience with curiosity as they visit the club and see some bizarre behaviour. The solution to the problems comes in the form of the friend and her becoming part of the household.
Sex and pathos are combined in the fifth story, a hearing-impaired young woman who is affected by the texture of fabrics but who also works at a phone exchange for hearing-impaired clients, discussing phone sex with a very ordinary woman at the other end who is busy fixing her face and disturbed by a saucepan exploding on her stove. The young man is studying for exams but is attracted to his interpreter.
With the story told, some kind of conclusion reached, everybody turns up at a local fairground.
It is surprising to find that this is a fairly exact remake of an Australian film, The Little Death, by Josh Lawson. In transferring it to Spain, the makers have given it more sunlight and exuberance than the original.
THE KING’S DECISION/ THE KING’S CHOICE
Norway, 2016, 133 minutes, colour.
Jesper Christensen, Anders Baasmo Christiansen, Karl Markovics.
Directed Erik Poppe
This is a film which is specially designed for Norwegian audience, a Scandinavian audience, offering memories of the of the King of Norway in World War II.
The film has been directed by one Norway’s most distinguished directors, Erik Poppe (Troubled Waters).
The film gives historical background of the establishing of Norway as a separate kingdom in the 20th century, the choice of the Danish prince who came with his family to establish the royal house which was accepted and has continued to the present.,
With the outbreak of the war, German submarines began to sail in Norwegian waters. The German ambassador to Oslo expected the King to make some kind of agreement with Germany to enable its occupation just as his brother, the King of Denmark, had done for that country.
The action takes place over only a couple of days, the pressure from the Germans, the threats from the Germans and the submarines, the king facing the decision and his advisors, some for allowing the Germans in (with the later rule of Quisling) and a number against so that during the night, the king and the cabinet left Oslo for a secret country location to make the decision. There is a vivid sequence where the train is attacked by air and passengers flee into the woods.
The dilemma for the king was whether to allow the Nazis in and have a possible peaceful occupation during the war or to defy the Germans with consequent attacks, destruction and death of civilians. The king made the decision to defy the Germans.
Jesper Christiansen is very effective as the King. His son was initially in favour of Nazi occupation but then supported his father – and eventually succeeded him.
The King’s decision in 1940 was a courageous one but has held up over the decades as an example of patriotic commitment in defiance of the Nazi will to conquer Europe.
UK, 2016, 89 minutes, Colour.
Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis, Paul Hilton, Naomi Ackie, Christopher Fairbank, Anton Palmer, Golda Rosheuvel.
Directed by William Oldroyd.
Audiences will immediately think of Shakespeare and then wonder about the connections of this story and its central character, Katherine Lester, and Macbeth’s vengeful wife. In fact, this film is based on a Russian short story of the 19th century by Nikolai Leskov, Lady Macbeth of Minsk (filmed in Russia in 1989).
Of course, Lady Macbeth is not a random choice for a title. It might be considered, as T.S. Elliott considered an “objective correlative”, a kind of archetypal reference to evoke connections in the imagination and emotions, some parallels, not strict, with Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth.
This is very stylised film, set in the remote Northumberland locations of County Durham, a mansion, the outhouses, the surrounding countryside which can be both attractive as well a sinister. There is no musical score but, at the time of deaths, in the middle of the film and that the end, there are electronic reverberations. While the photography is beautiful, the director is at pains to create a great number of tableau with the characters as well as frequently framing Katherine Lester and leaving the audience to contemplate her passionate yet sometimes enigmatic character.
For those who enjoy film history and comparisons, one might say this is a role which, in her past, Isabelle Huppert would have been very much at home in, quiet, interiorly ruminative, often seemingly impassive in her exterior manner and behaviour, yet bursting out sometimes passionately.
At the beginning, Katherine seems a quiet young girl, played by Florence Pugh (not yet 20 at the time of filming). She is seen in bridal white, in church, singing hymns, then, strong-minded, on her wedding night, asked to strip while her husband ignores her and is preoccupied with his own sexuality. Not a promising beginning to the marriage. He is a stern man, called away to a colliery explosion and Katherine is left alone, her hair combed by her maid, Anna, Naomi Ackie, woken each morning, brought breakfast, a quiet routine with Katherine confined to the house, rarely allowed out, sitting with her religious books. Not quite Lady Macbeth at this stage.
Matters change for her when she sees her husband’s workers ganging up sexually on Anna, ridiculing her about size with reference to a sow. Katherine’s demanding that they go back to work but her being attracted to the seeming instigator, Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis) who then enters Katherine’s room – with some passionate changes in her, surfacing all kinds of whimsical designs, and setting her on a psychopathic path.
This involves her horrible father-in-law who detests her, symbolically her standing next to his upright coffin for a photograph and her disdain in passing by his body lying in state. This also involves her husband and his return and his denunciation of her with dire results.
Once on her path of passion with Sebastian, and ensuing violence, she is tested when a stranger brings a little boy who is her husband’s ward. As they settle into the house, the little boy comfortable with Katherine, it might seem that this story will not have tragic consequences. But, of course it does, Katherine now glibly able to deny all complicity, transfer men blame to others and seeming impassive to their fates.
There is nothing else to do but for the director to frame Katherine again, focus the camera on her, her impassive look, the audience contemplating, reflecting on what might be going on inside her.
This is not a 19th century melodramatic romance but rather what might be called a study in the psyche of a Lady Macbeth.