All posts by Bruce Johns

Twelfth Night

Rarely has a Shakespeare production startled as many horses as Simon Godwin’s take on Twelfth Night at the National Theatre. The headlines belong to Tamsin Greig, brilliant as a gender-reassigned Malvolia. Like all the best ideas, this re-imagining seems obvious once the initial surprise has registered, being a logical extension of Viola’s cross-dressing; of the boys-playing-girls convention of the Elizabethan stage; and of our modern fascination with identity. Indeed, it is a sign of how far we have come as a society, and as an audience of the play, that the idea of Olivia falling for another woman is not what makes the deceit practised on her steward preposterous. That still relies on the priggish nature of the latter’s personality and on the gulf in status that separates them. On psychology and class, in other words, of which more presently.

Malvolia’s fall from grace has no shortage of contemporary echoes. Deemed crazy rather than disloyal, her imprisonment raises uncomfortable questions about the definition of madness and how we treat those diagnosed as insane. Even more uncomfortably, the sight of a woman bound and gagged, her costume suddenly resembling a state of undress, brings to mind our present-day plague of rape, domestic violence and kidnapping. Greig handles this change in mood quite movingly, the butt of our derision turned into an object of pity. Whatever else she represents, this wretched creature has carved out a position for herself in a predominantly man’s world, the same threat to patriarchy which lone abductors and alt-right movements alike are motivated to repel.

As with gender, so with otherness, a further context by which this production is framed. The appearance of strangers in our midst and what to do with the victims of disaster: we are faced with these challenges almost daily, and Shakespeare dramatizes the responses available to us. Having been rescued from the sea, Viola is immediately accepted, albeit with her true nature concealed, while Sebastian’s initial experience comes closer to the modern refugee’s, although even in his case love finally prevails. These twists and turns may be plot-driven rather than point-making; and the show’s gestation presumably predated the triumph of Trumpery. Yet the parallels are almost uncanny. At a time when progress towards racial and gender equality is under attack, Illyria, one of those Shakespearean dream-places located between reality and imagination, shows us what the world might look like if where you came from mattered just as little as who you fancied.

The origins of the production must also predate Brexit and the death of Martin McGuinness. But, whether by accident or not, it manages to be timely in this regard as well. The sea captain Antonio, besides having his love for Sebastian made homoerotic, is given an Ulster accent, as is his nemesis in the duke’s entourage, their old enmity still simmering. Suddenly we are back in the Troubles, whose return is feared if the Irish border becomes ‘hard’ once again. In those scenes – and those voices – with their hard edges of hatred and violence, the sexual politics feel almost benign. Yet here, too, some kind of truth and reconciliation is achieved, a reminder of how much, in the present climate, we stand to lose.

It has to be said, however, that these nuances are sometimes in danger of being obscured by the production values that Godwin brings to the play. The set design, with revolving spaces that open and close, is dazzling, the flights of stairs symbolic in clever and unexpected ways (contrast the light-footed descents of the privileged Olivia and Sir Toby with Malvolia’s struggle to ascend). But with every innovation something traditional is lost, and the show business razzmatazz detracts from the genius of the words. Performing Shakespeare used to be all about how you spoke the lines. Granted, this could produce wooden or cerebral acting but the text was privileged above all else, an appeal to the intellect as much as the emotions. In recent years we have seen Shakespeare: The Musical taking over, with musicians on stage, dance routines and ever-more garish costumes. These values pander to a modern sensibility, unbuttoned, participative but less exacting, perhaps – witness the cheering from tonight’s audience, which made it sound like a school production at times. Of course, it might equally well be argued that, far from being a modern travesty, this represents a return to the original spirit of Tudor and Stuart performance: rowdy, irreverent and crowd-pleasing.  In which case I am cast as the po-faced disapprover, frowning on a bit of innocent fun.

As Malvolio, in fact. It is to him – or in this case, her – to whom our thoughts inevitably return. One should be wary of psychoanalysing a fictional character, but can we agree there is a suggestion of insecurity, even self-loathing in this portrayal, of the kind that is turned outwards into spitefulness towards others? After all, narcissism is a front, a means of hiding or compensating for its reverse. How else to explain being hoodwinked so easily than by a desperate, if sublimated, longing to be loved? When that prospect unexpectedly arrives, with the reading of Maria’s forged letter, Greig’s character is briefly but spectacularly transfigured. In therapy such an outcome would be hailed as a breakthrough, with a softening towards others expected to follow. But to reveal oneself so openly is also to become vulnerable, and the play loses no opportunity to expose her to even greater ridicule. By inviting us to laugh, is Shakespeare shaming our complicity in her debasement, or were these simply the values of his age? Either way, the sight of this once-loathed-but-powerful figure being baited is difficult to take and holds up another mirror to our age, with its revenge porn and demonising of the disadvantaged.

But she is already plotting her revenge, an unusual ending among Shakespeare’s plays, with their timely comeuppances and knot-tying. And who might that payback be intended for? First in line would be Sir Toby and Sir Andrew, her two tormentors-in-chief. The original lords of misrule were pranksters licensed by their aristocratic patrons, although the archetype has acquired a more positive reputation for preventing society from becoming overly controlled. Viewed from another angle, however, they are feckless members of a purely decorative ruling class, exempt from the duties of hard work and solvency imposed on the rest of us. In contrast, Malvolia is a meritocrat raised by her own efforts, a product of ability rather than birth – a heroine, potentially. The trouble is her puritanism, emphasised in most productions by dressing the character all in black. Shakespeare knew all about that tendency, with its hatred of the theatre, and this may have been a means of acting out the artist’s distrust of censoriousness, of ‘visualising’ his fear by defeating it on the stage. Of course, he was too subtle and wise for single dimensions, for cardboard cut-outs with no life of their own. Olivia’s household would not function without her steward’s brand of punctiliousness and sense of duty. It represents, if you like, a kind of management style. But it is meanness of spirit we are intended to remember – and beware. Those words at the end of the play, threatening ‘the whole pack of you’, may express Shakespeare’s premonition of the killjoy’s triumph one day, in which case he was right, given what happened after the Civil War. In fact, the figure of Malvolio, dark-clad and implacable, returns throughout history. Murderous Jacobins, regicidal Bolsheviks – even fanatical Islamists: all have gone for a non-frivolous look in the service, as they see it, of remaking the world.

Argument of Kings

First published forty years ago, Argument of Kings was initially well-received and made the transition to paperback in 1989, a new edition following almost a decade later. Yet I only came upon it by chance in a second-hand stall while waiting to see a film, the kind of discovery that vindicates all those hours of fruitless browsing. I knew of Vernon Scannell as a poet without ever having read his work; but this is a memoir told in the third person about his experiences in the second world war. It presents a vision of that conflict which may seem jaundiced, even heretical, but would surely convince all except the most blinkered of patriots with its candour about the home front as well as the beaches. Not a great book if judged by the highest standards, still it manages to do most of what we hope for in a story, providing a strong narrative with agile changes of backdrop and pace at the same time as challenging our assumptions.

A boxer of some resolve, John Bain (Scannell’s original name) was no coward; yet he became a serial absconder from the army in circumstances easily characterised as desertion. Moral distaste, a common-or-garden bolshiness, sexual appetite, impatience to be demobbed: his motives varied but had in common a dislike of authority and following orders. There was fear as well, his own and his comrades’, the temptation to do a bunk always present, some minor wound (a so-called ‘blighty one’) the best that could be hoped for. This view of men under arms is remorselessly unheroic – excessively so, you may be tempted to think, but a bracing corrective to the usual pieties, what Larkin called the ‘solemn-sinister / Wreath-rubbish in Whitehall’. I realise halfway through that it is also about class, as any honest book on the subject of England is bound to be. The squalid self-preservation on display was born in the slums and factories – likewise the suspicion of anything more rarefied like Scannell’s interest in poetry. The picture drawn of being on leave in Manchester is particularly unstinting, with few resources, inner or social, to draw on, leaving drunkenness as the only form of release.

This is one of several claims made by the book to authenticity. No punches are drawn with regard to language, either the obscenities with which everyday speech was littered or their mantra-like repetition in moments of danger. The description of life in a military prison is harrowing, a system as inhumane as anything Hitler devised. And the effect on Bain of his friend’s death in action, a routine fatality numbing in its pointlessness, is poignant without being sentimental, a slow-release trauma from which the author and those close to him suffered for many years. There is a paradox at work in our attitudes to such things, a risk of unintended consequences. By honouring the dead and making their sacrifice seem worthwhile we run the risk of dignifying war, which only makes the next one more possible. Scannell’s book is as far removed from the standard version of events – and from any prospect of consolation – as it is possible to conceive. It is also commendably free of moralising. Yet in looking so squarely at the horror, degradation and wastefulness of a conflict still shrouded in national myth he did the rest of us a great service while seeking to exorcise his personal demons.

Bleeding Edge

If there is a record for the number of dialects and vernaculars you can cram into a novel, Thomas Pynchon just broke it with Bleeding Edge. Techno-babble; internet lingo; New York street jabber, with ethnic twists; dot com jargon; film buff arcana; even foodie in-talk – they tumble over each other as the complex, paranoid plot entangles and unravels like wires in an exploded junction box. If you understand more than half of what is going on you are a lot cleverer than me – and probably a lot younger, too. But even half was enough for this reader to be gripped and set thinking by. Might there be something to those 9/11 conspiracy theories? Is New York a freak show or a template for the rest of us?  Must human experience, and therefore nature, become more virtual than real? Will English split or hybridise into separate languages? How much fast food can people eat before their stomachs give up – or evolve? The mind whirls with distractions and possibilities, even before it starts grappling with the plot.

Maxine Tarnow, a fraud investigator with a Beretta in her handbag and a taste in unsuitable men, happens upon some shady dealings at a hi-tech company run by the mysterious Gabriel Ice. In trying to discover the truth she comes into contact (sometimes intimate) with hackers, geeks, hitmen, Mossad agents and other life forms whose intentions are never obvious or trustworthy. Why is money being channelled to the Middle East? Might America be sponsoring jihadist terrorism? What exactly is going on in the Deep Web? How come the smart money has been ‘shorting’ the stock of certain airlines? Is Maxine’s ex- (and now maybe current) husband in his office when the Twin Towers are hit, and will their marriage (not to mention their children) survive? I am not sure that all – if any – of these questions are answered by the time the book staggers, exhausted to its final page. But that may be the point. In the world being depicted, ‘not enough’ is as much as we are ever going to know, and ‘for now’ is as long as bad stuff can be prevented from happening.

Lester Traipse. Nick Windust. Eric Outfield. Pynchon has a genius for improbable names, one of several features in common with his previous novel, Inherent Vice. The latter is where his ‘late style’ might be said to have started. But for all their word-play, in-jokes and cultural currency both stories have one foot planted in tradition. Doc Sportello, the hippy private eye of the earlier book, is really Sam Spade with beads: a loner, a hard-ass when necessary, but also a moralist, aghast at how badly people behave. The new opus reaches even further back, to the origins of the novel, with a concern for its characters that celebrates empathy. And Maxine’s protectiveness towards her sons, with which the action both starts and finishes, says something about the vulnerability of innocence and love in our frenetic, exploitative age. There are laughs aplenty in Bleeding Edge but its vision is dark.

Great minds are said to think alike, and some of the same ground has been covered by Peter Carey in Amnesia, whose plot involves hackers and political conspiracies, Australian-style. Carey’s book is a fine achievement and less effort to understand; but Pynchon has taken a similar vision of post-modernity to another level, producing a work that might just be predicting where fiction, not to mention humanity, is headed. It pulls no punches and demands stamina and concentration on the part of the reader. But I like writers who refuse to compromise. It means they have something serious to say.

The Berlin Syndrome

If criminality has a zeitgeist, something which defines or typifies the age, then holding girls or young women captive, often for years, may well be ours. It retaliates against the progress made towards equal rights, which some men experience as emasculating, a woman’s place restored to the kidnapper’s definition of ‘home’. The unsettling question which haunts our understanding of these cases (one recently explored by the BBC series The Missing) is the possibility of a bond being forged between captor and captive. Known as the Stockholm Syndrome, after first being recognised during a Swedish bank siege in 1973, this is usually considered a survival strategy; but emotional complications arise, especially when children have been born, that shed light on our need for affection and on the unsettling dynamics which ripple like muscle beneath the surface of love.

Berlin Syndrome, the third feature-length film by Australian director Cate Shortland, takes this difficult issue as its subject, and produces a tense, involving drama that is often uncomfortable to watch. Clare, a photographer from Brisbane, arrives in Berlin with the aim of recording the architectural legacy of the GDR. She meets Andi, an English teacher in a physical education college and they spend the night together at his apartment, the start, it would seem, of a holiday romance. But Clare wakes to find herself imprisoned – an ordeal which she is not, it soon becomes clear, the first to have suffered at his hands.

For this to be convincing the set-up has to be right. The apartment is in an otherwise unoccupied block of flats, ironically the kind of relic she has come to photograph. The windows look out on an interior courtyard which no one else uses. In any case, Andi has double glazed them with reinforced glass. In making her premise watertight the director imitates the thought processes of the criminal, by no means the only role reversal in the film. For our part, enjoying the spectacle of another’s humiliation is pretty much the definition of sadism; and although we know that Andi will slip up eventually, the suspense is pleasurable and we want the moment postponed, making us accomplices in a way. As for Clare herself, this was no kidnapping by a stranger so it comes as less of a surprise that her feelings towards him are ambiguous. She submits to being tied up during the day like a participant in bondage; poses for the polaroids he takes of her in sexy underwear – another role reversal, the image-maker objectified; and virtually seduces him, the lovemaking too passionate to be wholly simulated. Of course, all of these actions can be seen as self-protection, and she attacks him when the opportunity arises. But the scenes with a sexual content, or at least implication, are shot in such a way as to blur the lines between compliance and desire. That is a difficult trick to pull off. A man could not do it these days, a sign of how far we have come – unless perhaps he was Lars von Trier.

That leaves us with Andi and his reasons for acting this way. A motive, or at least pathology, is suggested rather than explored, and I wonder if the original novel, by Shortland’s compatriot Melanie Joosten, has more to say about this. The decaying hulks of GDR buildings, along with the secrets they conceal, equate to memories repressed by the conscious mind of a unified Germany, whether these relate to crimes that were committed or to the hopes of a fairer society destroyed. Perhaps more could have been done to tease out this context or atmosphere. And, my only negative comment, Andi’s English class is hard to believe. Would PE students really be studying the work of James Baldwin? As a general point, teaching is badly served by cinema. Nonetheless, whether as psycho-sexual thriller or political allegory, Berlin Syndrome keeps us transfixed until the end. It is the work of a visual stylist and natural storyteller able to suggest layers of meaning beneath the conventions of a genre. Suspense plus thoughtfulness: what more can you ask?

A Quiet Passion

A Quiet Passion, the biopic of Emily Dickenson by Terence Davies, reproduces the boredom, disappointments and suffering of its subject’s life in such remorseless detail that it inflicts those same ordeals on the audience. Her fatal illness having been revealed, I found myself willing the poor woman to die so that I, too, might be spared further torment. Others did not wait so long and left before the end, the dull clatter of seats like sarcastic applause. Yet the house felt divided, it is fair to say. Dickenson inspires great reverence among fans, groups of whom took their places just before the film started, like militants packing a meeting. As with Sylvia Plath, it is less the poetry that excites their devotion than her treatment by men, the result being a shrill traumatology, a cult of the martyr’s wounds. With that in mind, the passion of the film’s title, which could refer to the poet’s thwarted love or immersion in her work, more closely resembles the Christian meaning of the word, a mixture of sacrifice and mortification. Her pious kinfolk would be dismayed.

But it is not just the length of the film that palls – a little editing would have sorted that out. In places the dialogue consists almost entirely of aphorisms, recalling Monty Python’s Oscar Wilde sketch. Were people really so persistently droll in the nineteenth century? The transition from younger to older versions of the characters is addressed by means of some clunky photoshopping, except in the case of Dickenson’s father, played throughout by Keith Carradine with the help of the make-up department and a bit of acting. We are treated to some of the most obvious hairpieces ever worn on screen, and the accents of the largely British cast make one curious about what lies beneath – like wigs, in fact. Finally, the images we are shown of battlefields with death tolls overlaid are stylistically at odds with the rest of the film. Nor is it clear what point they are trying to make. The Civil War must have impacted even on lives so cloistered and self-obsessed. But after Emily’s brother, Austin, is forbidden to enlist the subject very quickly drops out of sight. That said, the photographs of Gettysburg are transfixing, the images of Lincoln like seeing a mythological figure brought to life. But which side the Dickensons were on is never specified, apart from some waspish comments about slavery.

The film’s redeeming feature is a committed, immersive performance by Cynthia Nixon. She inhabits the part with an almost occult intensity, giving us an individual with all her contradictions laid bare: brilliant, loyal, cantankerous – and, it must be said, increasingly difficult to like. The climax is an extraordinary enactment of the poet’s agonies and death throes, so convincing they become almost unbearable to watch. Of course, the trouble with such magnetism is that it drains the life from other characters. Her sister Vinny, played by Jennifer Ehle, is too selfless to be credible, and their brother Austin (Scotland’s Duncan Duff) blurts out his lines as if the chance might not come again. Only in their mother does such effacement make sense, a woman’s place thought natural by that generation, her daughters’ independence of mind hard to explain.

But what about the poems? Nixon recites them as a running commentary which keeps our interest afloat even when the dourness and disappointments of Emily’s life threaten to overwhelm. I freely admit to being ignorant about the work, but what I hear sounds uneven in quality, some lines penetrating, even profound, others as trite as greeting cards. Every writer needs advice, the editorial function almost as vital as creativity itself. Sequestered among her family, it may be that Dickenson missed the blue pencil of someone appreciative but better qualified to judge. Or, as her advocates might insist, she transcends such concerns with originality and directness of expression, a female kind of genius too easily scoffed at by men. For all its faults, Terence Davies’ film sends the audience back to their bookshelves with an age-old question in mind: must literature stand or fall on its merits, or is knowing about the author essential to understanding their work?


Two films in this year’s Borderlines festival illustrate contrasting approaches to the dramatization of real events. Denial (also reviewed here) plays it straight with a narrative which keeps close to the facts, gives us a few twists and turns along the way and then delivers the climax, the resolution we all knew was coming. It might be argued that the subject matter precludes anything more playful or ambiguous; but given that the story revolves around notions of truth and admissibility, contested concepts in the modern world, a chance may have been missed to reflect those concerns in the style of the film-making itself.

Contrast that literal mindset with Pablo Larrain’s anti-biopic Neruda. This uses an episode in the poet’s life – his outlawing as a member of the Communist Party and subsequent escape from Chile – to investigate a number of relationships: art and politics, an author and his creations, one’s personal life and commitment to a cause. As a result one both learns about Neruda himself and questions the reliability of that knowledge, a more complex and satisfactory bill of fare than Denial’s meat and two veg.

Neruda – the wonderfully lugubrious Luis Gnecco – goes underground after a clampdown on leftists by his former ally in the presidential palace. From safe house to dockside to mountain hideaway he is pursued by Peluchonneau, a detective played by Gael Garcia Bernal. But all is not as it seems. Neruda, among many other things, wrote crime novels which often turn on or culminate in a chase. Copies of these books are left behind for his pursuer to read, and it dawns on the hapless policeman that he is not a real person after all but has been created. Deftly, the film uses this conceit to reference the creative process itself. The increasingly desperate, even farcical nature of Peluchonneau’s pursuit reflects the desire of a character to change what has been planned for him, a claim to free will that is familiar to any writer of fiction. But it can also be seen in terms of his creator’s attempt to keep control of the plot – another battle between the artist and his material. The former finally prevails, in that Peluchonneau meets his end (albeit a generously scenic one), enabling the author-hero to go on his way. But the film has not finished with their relationship. The dead man rises from his coffin to marvel at the independent existence  he has been granted in our minds, exactly the kind of afterlife accorded to characters who ‘stay with us’. As for Neruda, he returns against the advice of his bodyguards to collect the detective’s body and give it a proper burial. This is an elegant enacting of the author’s concern for his characters, experienced as the kind of attachment we might feel in real life, and of Neruda’s other preoccupation, his love for the people, from among whose suffering lower ranks the figure of Peluchonneau has been drawn.

Visually the film is a treat, with scenes changing rapidly from the grandeur of a parliamentary urinal to the snowfields of the Andes, from a cross between a tea dance and a brothel to the classic cars in which the poet, granting himself a stylish exit, makes good his escape. Gnecco prowls, recites, carouses, whores, schmoozes and orates with a compelling interplay of conscience and libido; Michael Silva brings both adulation and reserve to his role as a Party minder; and Francisco Reyes is magnetic as the singer Bianchi. Less compellingly, Mercedes Moran finds it hard to convince as the poet’s long-suffering wife while Bernal’s performance makes me wonder if he has a gift for comedy.

One puzzle remains. Was the manhunt for Neruda on which the film, however loosely, is based any more than a charade? There are grounds for wondering if the poet wants, or wanted, to escape: he takes risks, considers being protected a form of captivity, and debates the dangers and merits of being found, tactically in terms of the movement’s interests and as a moral or artistic gesture. On the other side, it is not clear how seriously the government seeks, or sought, his arrest. Perhaps his stature brings a kind of immunity – that happens to artists sometimes. When pressed to detain Sartre in 1968 De Gaulle is said to have replied: one does not arrest Voltaire. But the film glances forward to a less nuanced view of dissent – and a much harsher fate for dissenters. We are shown the desert camp in which less celebrated communists were interned, I suspect for the sole purpose of revealing its commandant, a young Augustin Pinochet. Fast forward twenty-five years and the military coup which he mounted against Salvadore Allende included among its victims Neruda himself. Already sick, perhaps mortally so, he fled hospital after being given an injection but succumbed within hours, subsequent investigations concluding that he had been poisoned. This was Lorca in Spain all over again. Kill your country’s poet and you murder its soul.


The Founder

From the first frame of The Founder, John Lee Hancock’s film about the origins of McDonald’s, Michael Keaton dominates the screen. There are two kinds of actor with that level of magnetism: one seeks to disappear into the role, like Daniel Day Lewis; the other finds in every part they play a plausible version of themselves. Keaton belongs to this second, less immersive tradition, each character, however fully incarnated, a distant cousin of others in his resumé: the newsman in The Paper, for example, or the action hero attempting a comeback in Birdman. That trademark wince of disappointment, the eyebrows raised to encourage assent, something incorrigible about the eyes:  we like him and feel at home, his films rewarding our sympathy by making it feel justified.

This time, however, we are suckered by that familiar pitch. When we meet Ray Kroc he is middle-aged and strictly small-time, lugging milkshake dispensers round food joints across the Midwest. No one believes in him: blinkered customers, fatuous friends, stay-at-home wife. So convincing is Keaton even we have our doubts, despite knowing what happens next. A visit to the McDonald brothers’ diner in San Bernardino is the turning point. They have perfected the concept of fast food, and Kroc talks his way into their confidence, promising to franchise the operation without sacrificing quality. The story of this relationship lies at the heart of the film. The McDonalds are true innovators but commit the cardinal sin of thinking small. Once Kroc gets investors involved the return on their dollar drives everything, with inevitable results.

This story is Death of a Salesman turned on its head. As the Willy Loman character, Kroc’s wildest fantasies really do materialise: untold wealth; personal recognition; the ear of Presidents. And the film presents this outcome without comment or irony, even tacking real footage on the end to drive the point home. What, then, is it saying? Hurrah for the American Dream of rags (or at least off-the-peg suits) to riches? Lots of other people make money, after all. Even the McDonalds get cheques. Yet his treatment of them is surely meant to leave a nasty taste in one’s mouth, like a stale bun or burnt French fry. Is that the intention, a cautionary tale about the downside of success? But somehow the critique seems wider and more compelling. The homespun values of the original McDonald’s are trampled on by corporate ruthlessness and greed. And those values are central to America’s sense of itself: family, community, looking out for the little guy. The things that countries believe about themselves are usually untrue.

The Founder says it all in the title. Having taken everything else from the brothers, Kroc cannot bear to leave them with the credit for beginning it all. The victor gets to rewrite history – in this case on his business card. Nor is there is any hint of comeuppance, of pride coming before a fall. In Greek tragedy hubris is a fatal character flaw, but billionaires get to rewrite that moral as well. Perhaps this is what the film is offering, a story for our times. A golf-playing mansion-dweller, upgrading wives as if they were cars: if this man resembles anyone it is the deal-making narcissist in the White House. Such people don’t get to lose – and if they did, it would be tax deductible.

Lady Macbeth

A theme may be developing in this year’s Borderline Festival: that of pregnant woman on killing sprees. After Alice Lowe’s murderous primigravida in Prevenge we have William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth taking out the men in her life, albeit by less gruesome means. However uneasily at times, Lowe’s fable is played for laughs; Oldroyd’s, an adaptation of Nikolai Leskov’s novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, makes no attempt to lighten the mood. A more considered, if not self-conscious, piece of film-making, it cuts off every avenue of escape – into humour, sub-plots or consolation – and leaves the viewer, like the female protagonist, with nowhere to hide.

Several transpositions are involved: from page to screen, from Tsarist Russia to Victorian England, and from Shakespeare’s villain to a teenage bride. Katherine, a young woman whose background is not explained, has been married off to an older man whom she may never have seen before. Alexander is the son of a mine-owner, Boris – the latter’s name a nod towards Leskov’s original, but the single false note in an otherwise convincing recreation of time and place. Boris makes no bones about it: she has been ‘sold’ to his family along with a field, her status as property underlined; and Alexander, unmanned by his father’s lowering presence, is incapable of love or even, it seems, desire. As her frustration and unhappiness grows, Katherine turns to a groom in her father-in-law’s service. Their liaison is discovered but, rather than return to domestic slavery, Katherine embarks on a murderous bid for what we might now think of as liberation. Except that it isn’t, of course, this being tragedy.

Birch has described the film as an ‘anti-bonnet’ view of the period and to an audience raised on Jane Austen serials the revisionism is unsparing. Costume, so often a scene-stealer in period drama, is brutally deconstructed. To watch Katherine being squeezed and laced into her clothes is to witness a violent assault as well as a form of imprisonment, the gradual reduction in what she wears a signifier of resistance and escape. And the absence of music, the steroid of screen nostalgia, brings us closer to the action, sometimes uncomfortably so. Wind is heard scouring the moor, its bleakness immediate and untempered. We hear the small, queasy sounds of Alexander’s self-pleasuring. Above all the house, like an extra character, speaks to us in creaks, chimes and crushing silences, any comfort it provides merely physical. As for the human protagonists, Florence Pugh as Katherine, faced with the boredom and frustration of such a life, makes a mesmerising transition from girlish petulance to full-blown monstrosity. No duty or demure submission here. And Naomi Ackie endows Anna, the maid, with a bewildered passivity, her colour adding depth to the film’s indictment of servitude.

It is the idea of Lady Macbeth to which one keeps returning, however, and the uses to which such an archetype can be put. Shakespeare’s original had lost her children and our present-day understanding of grief reads much into that circumstance. But it was omitted from the first folio and most subsequent editions so that a less nuanced conception of the part, focusing on thwarted ambition, usually prevails. Leskov’s updating of the plot has a more domestic setting, with sexual need and rebellion against patriarchy providing motivation, and Lowe’s script is faithful to this reading of the story in most respects. Disappointingly, Katherine’s male tormentors, Boris in particular, are little more than cartoons of oppressive men – revenge, perhaps, for centuries of cardboard cut-out women but one-dimensional all the same and sparing us the emotional exercise of divided sympathies.

Oldfield’s film passes the test of any adaptation, adding its own layer of meaning through which previous versions of the story can be viewed. Take the fate of his Lady Macbeth, which substitutes a form of triumph for the usual comeuppance. This might be seen as a feminist reworking except that it comes at a terrible price. A  child and an innocent woman die and Katherine becomes everything she hates, our final sight of her loveless and stone-hearted, the prison of her clothes re-entered without irony. It is not who rules this world that has to change, the film appears to be saying, but the world itself.


Comic violence is difficult to define, let alone do well. Is it a genre in its own right, a sub-set of other categories or simply a style that needs to be anchored, not to say justified, by something worthier of our attention? Ben Wheatley’s Sightseeing, in which Alice Lowe co-starred, got its laughs by associating gore with the caravan, that symbol of mobile domesticity, and by taking to extremes the petty resentments and irritation we all feel but normally keep hidden. Lowe’s debut as director, Prevenge, written, filmed and performed when she was heavily pregnant, treads and sometimes crosses a much finer line, managing to get one emotionally involved then finally losing its nerve.

Lowe’s character, Ruth, murders people gruesomely, the contrast between this and her third-trimester bulge funny but unsettling. Then it becomes clear that she is driven to these acts by the voice of her unborn child. Pregnancy, I am told, involves feeling that one’s body has been taken over, a loss of control exploited by Prevenge for macabre and humorous effect. But even the unborn have motives, and a reason for this prenatal killing spree emerges, retribution as a bloodthirsty form of grief.

Audiences like to be kept off-balance, and Lowe keeps inviting our empathy with her knife-wielding mum-to-be before jolting us out of it with moments of horror and farce. As the film nears its conclusion one begins to wonder which mood will prevail. Might the killing turn out to have been imagined, the tables turned on our laughter and unease? I do not mind being proved wrong, liking a film less for seeming predictable. But the final frames of Prevenge are a missed opportunity, neither thought-provoking nor genuinely shocking, as if Lowe was unsure how to finish what she had so ably started.


Donald Trump’s response to inconvenient news is to tweet that it never happened. Creationists insist on equal billing for their ideas. Climate change sceptics dismiss the evidence marshalled against them. We live in an age when proof has become optional and simply to hold an opinion, however flaky and unsupported, is to merit a slot on Fox News. But the daddy of counter-reality is holocaust denial and its loudest voice belongs to David Irving, which makes the release of a film based on his libel case against Penguin Books and their author, Deborah Lipstadt, almost eerily well timed.

Lipstadt had denounced Irving in print and refused to debate him in public, even when he gate-crashed one of her lectures. You are entitled to believe anything, she argued, but not to expect a platform for views motivated by prejudice and based on falsification of the facts. That standpoint, as much as the Final Solution itself, went on trial at the Old Bailey. The case was brought in London because British libel laws laid the burden of proof on the defence – one of several quirks in our legal system with which Lipstadt struggles at first. Needless to say, she comes to love, or at least understand, us in the end, contributing to a whiff of smugness in Denial. A view from the other side of the Atlantic might have let us off less lightly. And while we are on the subject, Rachel Weisz is credible enough as Lipstadt and achieves the feat, difficult for her, of not looking improbably gorgeous; but were no American actresses available to play the part? This preference for ‘one of us’ adds to the undertow of self-satisfaction, even complacency. Perhaps if the film was being shot now a sense of ongoing struggle might have replaced the back-slapping finale. A battle won, not the war.

Still, this is a case where the subject matter is more important than (I almost said trumps) minor quibbles about the film. On such occasions cinema acts like a newspaper of record, placing information in the public domain. If it is done well, the audience emerges talking less about the direction or performances than about the events depicted in the film. The question remains, however: how do you inject narrative tension when the outcome is known and one side in the contest is beyond the pale? David Hare’s script appears scrupulously fair, giving Irving his moments in court. Mick Jackson generates as much tension among the home team as with their opponent at times. And Timothy Spall nearly makes one sympathise with his character, particularly at the end of the trial when his handshake is spurned by opposing counsel. David versus Goliath was how he saw the engagement and one’s instinct is to side with the little guy. This was the establishment ranged against him, after all, on the right side for once but still arousing one’s instinct to rebel.