Review: Sex and Sensibility, BBC 4

Set against political scandal, mass immigration and growing cultural hysteria, this three-part BBC d

Despite, being a dazzling time full of progress and change, as the turning of a new century loomed, drug abuse, sexual deviance and syphilis were rife. Europe in the late 1800s was a hot bed of radical ideas and “there were also more ominous undercurrents”. Indeed, as Smith points out Conrad’s Heart of Darkness was published in 1899, at art nouveau’s height.

The first episode, broadcast last Thursday, explores the rise and fall of this flamboyant decorative style from it’s emergence in the Bohemian underbelly of Paris onto the streets of the city, giving us an insight into both the flourishing aesthetic of art nouveau and the lives of some of the city’s most glamorous and controversial fin de siècle figures.

Smith looks at the iconic, sensual images of actress Sarah Bernhardt, the exclusive architecture of the famous Maxim’s restaurant, Paris’s art nouveau metro stations as well as the exquisitely gaudy beauty of jewellery designed by Renee Lalique. But Smith’s exploration of this decadent world is  not just a flick through the picture books, as he reveals how some of art nouveau's stars risked their reputation to give meaning and purpose to work they thought would affect social change.

In Episode two Smith shifts his exploration to Britain wherein the “sensuality of exotic foreign influences met the genius of British craftsmanship”. Our art nouveau heritage is excavated revealing the “meteoric”, “dazzling”, “controversial” yet brief career of illustrator Aubrey Beardsley whose illustrations and association with Oscar Wilde scandalised the British public of the day. Smith also looks at the work of William Morris and Charles Rene McKintosh as well as lesser-known talents such as Margaret Macdonald.

Episode three, airing on Thurdsay 5th April, will see Smith journeying to Vienna to take a look at the master of art nouveau, Gustav Klimt.

The series uncovers glimpses into the world of art nouveau. Through visits to their private houses, previously unseen collections of their work and interviews with their enthusiasts, Smith talks engagingly and intriguingly about this fashion fad that disappeared almost as fast as it emerged. Whether you are a fan of the art nouveau style or not, the scandalous lives of its fin de siècle’s participants more than makes up for its over-the-top and whimsical aesthetics.

Photo: Getty Images
Lady Macbeth.
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Lady Macbeth: the story Stalin hated reaches the movie screen

Lady Macbeth grows less psychologically plausible the higher the body count rises.

Lady Macbeth (15), dir: William Oldroyd

Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, Nikolai Leskov’s novel about a bored, oppressed and bloodthirsty young woman, was adapted for the opera by Shoskatovich. Two years after its premiere in 1934, it had a terrible review, allegedly by Stalin himself, in Pravda. The new film version, Lady Macbeth, is set in 1865 (the year the novel was published) and feels resolutely anti-operatic in flavour, with its austere visuals and no-nonsense camerawork: static medium shots for dramatic effect or irony, hand-held wobbles to accompany special moments of impetuousness. The extraordinary disc-faced actor Florence Pugh has her hair scraped back into plaits and buns – all the put-upon teenage brides are wearing them this season – and the film feels scraped back, too. But it features certain behaviour (murder) that would feel more at home, and not so riskily close to comedy, in the hothouse of opera, rather than on and around the stark moors of low-budget British cinema.

Pugh plays Katherine, who is first seen reacting with surprise to a booming singing voice at her wedding ceremony. Unfortunately for her, it’s her husband, Alexander (Paul Hilton). On the plus side, there won’t be much cause for crooning in their house, no power ballads in the shower or anything like that. The tone is set early on. He orders her to remove her nightdress. Then he climbs into bed alone. It’s not clear whether she is expected to follow, and a cut leaves the matter unresolved.

Alexander defers to his grizzled father, Boris (played by Christopher Fairbank), who purchased Katherine in a two-for-one deal with a plot of land in north-east England, on important matters such as whether she can be allowed to go to sleep before him. So it isn’t much of a loss when he is called away on business (“There’s been an explosion at the colliery!”). Ordered to stay in the house, she dozes in her crinoline, looking like an upside-down toadstool, until one day she is awakened, literally and figuratively, by the sound of the rough-and-ready groomsman Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis) sexually humiliating the maid, Anna (Naomi Ackie). Katherine leaps to her rescue and gives Sebastian the most almighty shove. Pugh’s acting is exceptional; fascination, disgust and desire, as well as shock at her own strength, are all tangled up in her expression.

When Sebastian later forces his way into Katherine’s room, you want to warn them that these things don’t end well. Haven’t they seen Miss Julie? Read Lady Chatterley’s Lover? Thérèse Raquin? Well, no, because these haven’t been written yet. But the point stands: there’ll be tears before bedtime – at least if these two can lay off the hot, panting sex for more than 30 seconds.

The film’s director, William Oldroyd, and the screenwriter, Alice Birch, play a teasing game with our sympathies, sending the struggling Katherine off on a quest for independence, the stepping stones to which take the form of acts of steeply escalating cruelty. The shifting power dynamic in the house is at its most complex before the first drop of blood is spilled. Indeed, none of the deaths is as affecting as the moment when Katherine allows her excessive consumption of wine to be blamed on Anna, whose lowly status as a servant, and a dark-skinned one at that, places her below even her bullied mistress on the social scale.

There is fraught politics in the almost-love-triangle between these women and Sebastian. It doesn’t hurt that Jarvis, an Anglo-Armenian musician and actor, looks black, hinting at a racial kinship between groomsman and maid – as well as the social one – from which Katherine can only be excluded. Tension is repeatedly set up only to be resolved almost instantly. Will Alexander return home from business? Oh look, here he is. Will this latest ghastly murder be concealed? Oh look, the killer’s confessed. But the actors are good enough to convince even when the plot doesn’t. A larger problem is that Lady Macbeth grows less psychologically plausible the higher the body count rises. Katherine begins the film as a feminist avenger and ends it as a junior version of Serial Mom, her insouciance now something close to tawdry camp. 

“Lady Macbeth” is released 28 April

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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