Lady Macbeth


Here comes the bride.

(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

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Love & Friendship


Kate Beckinsale machinates.

Kate Beckinsale machinates.

(2016) Period Romance (Roadside Attractions/Amazon) Kate Beckinsale, Morfydd Clark, Tom Bennett, Jenn Murray, Lochlann O’Mearáin, Sophie Radermacher, Chloë Sevigny, Stephen Fry, Jordan Waller, Ross Mac Mahon, Frank Prendergast, Xavier Samuel, Emma Greenwell, Justin Edwards, Kelly Campbell, Jemma Redgrave. Directed by Whit Stillman

Woman Power

The role of women has evolved over the centuries, but it still has a long way to go. One woman who has helped it evolve is the author Jane Austen, who wrote about strong female heroines in a period when women were not just second class citizens, but third or even fourth class. It is something of a shame that Austen heroines are to this day still more of an exception than a rule.

Lady Susan (Beckinsale) is a widow with scarcely a penny to her name. In the Regency era, that is a dire situation indeed. Having married into the upper class, she is used to a certain lifestyle that she can no longer afford. Having a scandalous reputation as a temptress (one that has been well-earned to be sure) hasn’t helped her cause. With few options, she goes to her sister-in-law Catherine Vernon (Greenwell) and her good-natured husband Charles (Edwards) to stay with.

Things are tense between the two women, mainly because Susan had opposed the marriage and had done her best to quash it – unsuccessfully. Now the appearance of Susan’s daughter Frederica (Clark) has complicated matters. Susan has been trying to get Frederica married to the extremely wealthy, moderately handsome, sweet-natured but utterly dim Sir James Martin (Bennett) whom she doesn’t love and has been resisting. Susan herself has been courting the charms of Catherine’s younger brother Reginald (Samuel), much to the amusement of Susan’s American friend Mrs. Johnson (Sevigny).

However all of Lady Susan’s plots and schemes may come crashing down about her head. There are people who just plain don’t like her and disapprove of her. It will take all of her wits and intelligence to stay one step ahead of everyone else and succeed in making sure both she and her daughter are able to live in comfort and privilege.

Director Whit Stillman is one of those guys who is well-respected within the film community. He has some really terrific films to his credit, including Last Days of Disco and Metropolitan, both must-sees for any film buff. He seems tailor-made for the works of Jane Austen and true to expectations he nails it with his first foray into the grand dame’s work.

And that turns out to be the case. Stillman gets the essence of the language, making it flow without making it too incomprehensible to modern ears, which is often the case with Regency-era adaptations. He also knows how to bring the best in Beckinsale, who starred for him in Last Days of Disco. She is absolutely superb here, self-confident, manipulative, venal and absolutely seductive. This is the kind of performance that serves notice that you’re not just a B-movie actress, as she has already shown in several other indie films.

There are a couple of other great performances here as well, including Sevigny’s acerbic turn as Mrs. Johnson. Sevigny is an actress who is criminally underused by both Hollywood and the independent film scene. Her appearances are always much anticipated and appreciated by this critic, and she gives one of her best performances here in years. Bennett is also tip-top as the incredibly dense Sir James. He is delightfully funny and provides a fine counterpoint to the very intelligent Susan.

The only quibble I have is that so many of the other roles are played in an almost stilted fashion. That does make Beckinsale’s work stand out but I think it detracts from the rest of the film. I would have liked to have seen a little more personality in some of the other actors.

This is also a lush-looking film, with beautiful locations and sumptuous costumes and wigs. The period is recalled evocatively but in many ways you don’t feel you’re looking at the actual era so much as an idealized version of it. As is often the case in Austen’s work we rarely see beyond the walls of the upper classes – the savage poverty that was also a hallmark of the era. It exists only as a big bad boogieman to terrify those of the upper class who are teetering on the edge of it.

Jane Austen isn’t for everybody. Most audiences find her dull and slow, but there is a lyricism about her work – even the filmed versions of it – that I have found oddly moving and appealing throughout my life, from reading her actual words to the adaptations of those words. I think that she continues to teach us about the reality of who women are – or can be. She has created dozens of role models who can STILL be role models nearly 200 years after the fact. If there is anything more impressive than that, I can’t think of it.

REASONS TO GO: Beckinsale gives a marvelous performance and Bennett is inspired comic relief. Gorgeous costumes and settings. A fine adaptation of a lesser-known Austen work.
REASONS TO STAY: May be too mannered for some. A few of the supporting performances are too colorless to stand up.
FAMILY VALUES: Some of the thematic elements are a bit on the adult side.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sienna Miller was originally cast as Lady Susan, but had to drop out and Beckinsale was cast in her place.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/6/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews. Metacritic: 87/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sense and Sensibility
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Dark

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies


Who knew that Jane Austen kicked ass?

Who knew that Jane Austen kicked ass?

(2016) Horror (Screen Gems) Lily James, Sam Reilly, Bella Heathcote, Ellie Bamber, Millie Brady, Suki Waterhouse, Douglas Booth, Sally Phillips, Charles Dance, Jack Huston, Lena Headey, Matt Smith, Emma Greenwell, Eva Bell, Aisling Loftus, Charlie Anson, Tom Lorcan, Robert Fyfe, Dan Cohen, Nicholas Murchie, Kate Doherty, Pippa Haywood, Bessie Cursons, Morfydd Clark. Directed by Burr Steers

Most of us have had our own encounters with Jane Austen’s masterpiece, either through high school or college lit classes, or through the multitudinous cinematic adaptations. Nothing you’ve ever seen before however will prepare you for this.

It is 1813 and the Regency period in Britain is in full flower. So is an invasion of the living dead as zombies have essentially overrun London which has a gigantic 100 foot wall and moat ringing it, with the environs between the moat and wall known as “The In-Between.” The redoubtable British army patrols the area but it is essentially deserted. Of the living, at any rate.

Elizabeth Bennet (James) and her sisters Jane (Heathcote), Lydia (Bamber), Mary (Brady) and Kitty (Waterhouse) have been raised by their father (Dance) as warriors, able defenders of the family home with sword and gun and dagger. Their mother (Phillips) still is stuck in a mindset where there are no zombies, hoping to marry off the girls to wealthy suitors. Jane already has one in the wealthy Mr. Bingley (Booth). However it is Mr. Darcy (Riley) who catches Elizabeth’s eye and not in a good way when he callously insults her at a party, then “saves” her from a zombie that accosts her outside the mansion trying to warn her about something. Elizabeth is far from grateful.

As the wealthy Darcy looks down his nose at the less fortunate Bennet family, the zombie problem is getting more acute as the London wall will soon be overrun and the one bridge over the moat will soon be dynamited. The dashing Lt. Wickham (Huston) arrives on the scene, not only to catch Elizabeth’s eye but also to map out a daring plan to make peace with the zombies. Darcy’s aunt, the Lady de Bourgh (Headey) listens to the plan with a saucy eye-patch covering her battle wound, but as Britain’s most acclaimed zombie killer and owner of the most fortified home in the land, she ultimately rejects any attempt at peace as does her nephew.

But the walls are falling and a crisis with Lydia Bennet leads Elizabeth, Darcy and Wickham into the no-man’s land to rescue her (although one has different motives) and bring her back to safety before the bridge is blown up at dawn. Can the plucky Elizabeth rescue her sister and escape the hordes?

This is based on a bestselling novel by Seth Grahame-Smith which is in turn based on the Jane Austen classic. While the title sounds more like a comedy than it really is not played for laughs; rather it is pretty much done straight with the horror elements emphasized. I think that’s the right move, quite frankly; there have been plenty of zombie spoofs and the bar is fairly high for those to begin with. However, it must be said that it also makes for an often discomfiting mash-up of styles.

The cast is solid, although unspectacular. The best-faring is James, who uses her Downton Abbey experience nicely. I’ve seen it said elsewhere but I’ll echo the sentiment; she’d make a fine Elizabeth Bennet in a straight-up production of the Austen novel. She is strong-willed and looks stunning in the dresses of the period. She also handles the physical work of the fighting gracefully.

Riley, one of the more underrated actors today, delivers a performance that is curiously flat. I suppose it might be said that Darcy is a character who doesn’t do emotion well, but even so Riley seems like he’s in a fog most of the time. There is also the odd wardrobe decision of putting the character in a leather greatcoat as if he’s some kind of Regency biker. It’s distracting to hear the leather creaking and crackling every time Riley’s onscreen.

Most of the humor here springs from Matt Smith’s portrayal of the dandified Parson Collins, who is an unwelcome suitor (and cousin to) Elizabeth. The former Doctor Who actor at times seems like he’s in a different movie than the rest of the cast, but his is in many ways more fun. As I mentioned, most of the cast plays this straight. It’s more the situation from where the humor is derived, other than through Collins and let’s face it, he’s also comic relief in the book as well.

The gore here is mainly of the CGI kind, but there is plenty of it – so much so that I was frankly surprised the movie didn’t rate an “R” but the MPAA has never shown a lot of consistency when it comes to rating films. Not all the CGI is of the top of the line variety, so expect to see a few images that will just scream computer generated. That’s never a good thing in any film.

This is solidly entertaining fare, surprisingly so considering the source. I won’t say that this is a new franchise for Screen Gems because it really doesn’t have that feel, unless the producers want to move on to other Austen novels or the Bronte sisters. However, if you don’t mind a little gruesome – okay, a lot of gruesome – in your classic literature, this might make for some interesting viewing for you.

REASONS TO GO: An interesting mash-up. James makes an excellent Elizabeth Bennet.
REASONS TO STAY: Some may be put off by the gore or the period. CGI is a little bit rough around the edges.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence and zombie gore. There’s also some brief sexual suggestion.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Originally Natalie Portman was cast as Elizabeth but had to drop out due to scheduling conflicts; she remained on board as a producer however.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/20/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 43% positive reviews. Metacritic: 45/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Scout’s Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Deadpool