(2016) Drama (Roadside Attractions) Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis, Paul Hilton, Naomi Ackie, Christopher Fairbank, Golda Rosheuvel, Anton Palmer, Rebecca Manley, Fleur Houdjik, Cliff Burnett, David Kirkbride, Bill Fellows, Nicholas Lumley, Raymond Finn, Ian Conningham, Finn Burridge, Jack Robertson, Kima Sikazwe, Elliott Sinclair, Andrew Davis, Alan Billingham, Joseph Teague. Directed by William Oldroyd
In A Chorus Line, Cassie warbles “Can’t forget, won’t regret what I did for love.” The sentiment strikes a chord in most of us; we mostly will do just about anything for love. If all is fair in love and war as the saying goes, some of us will do unspeakable things for love.
Katherine (Pugh) really doesn’t know what love is and she wants someone to show her. The daughter of hard economic times, her family essentially sold her to wealthy Alexander (Hilton) and more to the point, his cold and demanding father Boris (Fairbank). She is treated pretty much like chattel, ordered to stay indoors – fresh air apparently being anathema to both father and son, although I suspect it is more of a control thing than a health thing.
When both Alexander and Boris are called away from the chilly, drafty home in the north of England on business, Katherine asserts herself as the lady of the manor, going out on long walks on the moor. Her Anglo-African maid Anna (Ackie), who is mostly mute, is witness to her transgressions but seems sympathetic. One afternoon she rescues a nude Anna from the abuse of the stable staff, particularly from Sebastian (Jarvis), an arrogant groomer. He later creeps into her room, presumably to rape her but she ends up seducing him and the two begin a torrid affair. It doesn’t go unnoticed.
When Boris returns home, he is nearly apoplectic and Katherine realizes that while her father-in-law and husband (who hasn’t consummated their marriage yet – to date all he’s done is masturbate while she stands naked facing the wall) live, she can never be with Sebastian. She therefore embarks on a course that is born out of equal parts desperation and terrible resolve.
Oldroyd – whose name sounds like a Jane Austen character – is known mostly for his stage direction, but you’d never know it here. Even though much of the action is limited to the fairly large house, the film never feels stagey although it is occasionally claustrophobic – purposely so, as no doubt Katherine is feeling restrained.
Initially, this feels like an adaptation of an Austen novel – I was surprised to discover that it’s actually an adaptation of a Russian novel – but as the movie wears on the feel changes. During the course of the movie Katherine does increasingly terrible things to the point where it becomes hard to have any sort of rooting interest in her. I began to think of the film as Quentin Tarantino’s Jane Austen – this is very much how I would imagine that Tarantino would direct an Austen-like thriller.
The pacing is pretty stately; at times it seems like the storyline is barely moving at all. There are endless scenes of Katherine sitting in boredom watching the clock on the wall or falling asleep. The point is made, Mr. Oldroyd. There are also elements of the story that are rather bewildering; Katherine, for example, being sexually attracted to a man who is obviously an utter bastard; how quickly she turns upon people who she supposedly cares about. At the end of the day, she ends up being an utter sociopath and because of her social status, society assumes that her claims are true and those of her servants are lies.
This is very much a class-conscious film and given that Sebastian is of mixed ancestry and that Anna is fully of African descent adds the race card in addition to the class card.. The most sympathy is reserved for Anna who really gets the shaft at the end of the film – something that African-American audiences know only too well. We even end up with some sympathy for Sebastian although once you think about what a rotten human being he is at the beginning of the film, that sympathy is somewhat tempered.
The acting here is actually quite swell and this may very well be a breakout role for Pugh. She has to play a role that is both sympathetic and not; at first, she is treated like a possession, little more than a slave to her husband and father-in-law and an ornament who is meant to shine brightly without making much noise. However as her evil deeds begin to multiply it is difficult to see her as anything but an amoral sociopath. We question if she does all this for love of another, or for her own freedom. You get your answer to that by film’s end.
It should be noted there is a scene in which a horse is shot. The plot point is necessary to the film but the scene is done with particular brutality and is rather graphic. Those sensitive to animal suffering should be forewarned before going to see this. I found it unnerving myself although it is I must admit effectively staged, giving the audience an idea just how cold-blooded Katherine and Sebastian have become to that point.
That end is nothing like what you’ll expect. I don’t know how close it is to the ending of the original Nikolai Leskov story having never read it myself but certainly this didn’t go the way I expected. It’s certainly a lesson on class distinctions (and nobody understood that better than the citizens of Imperial Russia) but it is also a look at the effects of love as a kind of madness. As the Russians are wont to do, it is a bit of a downer but it also is a fascinating character study.
REASONS TO GO: The performances are uniformly solid. The story doesn’t go in the direction you expect it to.
REASONS TO STAY: The pacing is extremely slow and the plot is occasionally bewildering.
FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit of nudity, sex and sexuality; there’s also a scene of animal abuse.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although set in England during the Regency era, the movie is actually based on a Russian novel, Lady Macbeth of Mtensk by Nikolai Leskov.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/4/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mansfield Park
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Brave New Jersey