Documentary update

John Steinbeck, When Bankers Were Good and the Academy Awards.

84th Academy Awards Documentary Feature category

The list of 15 films has been announced by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. It includes Wim Wenders' unmissable tribute to choreographer Pina Bausch and Susanne Rostock's documentary about Harry Belafonte's involvement in the American civil rights movement, Sing Your Song.

The list has some prominent omissions: Werner Herzog's death-row documentary Into the Abyss and most surprisingly, Senna, Asif Kapada's mesmerising documentary about the Brazilian Formula One racing driver who won the world championship three times. The winner of the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival, Senna is made up of fragments of archival footage. The result is a visually sublime exploration of the excitement and burden of Senna's talent.

The chosen documentary films are:

Battle for Brooklyn (RUMUR Inc.)
Bill Cunningham New York (First Thought Films)
Buck (Cedar Creek Productions)
Hell and Back Again (Roast Beef Productions Limited)
If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front (Marshall Curry Productions, LLC)
Jane's Journey (NEOS Film GmbH & Co. KG)
The Loving Story (Augusta Films)
Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (@radical.media)
Pina (Neue Road Movies GmbH)
Project Nim (Red Box Films)
Semper Fi: Always Faithful (Tied to the Tracks Films, Inc.)
Sing Your Song (S2BN Belafonte Productions, LLC)
Undefeated (Spitfire Pictures)
Under Fire: Journalists in Combat (JUF Pictures, Inc.)
We Were Here (Weissman Projects, LLC)

The 84th Academy Awards nominations will be announced live on 24 January, with the award ceremony taking place on 26 February, broadcast live on the ABC Television Network.

Melvyn Bragg's John Steinbeck documentary

Tonight a one-hour documentary for BBC Four will follow former NS guest editor Melvyn Bragg as he explores the legacy of the Nobel Prize-winning author, John Steinbeck. Bragg travels from Oklahoma to California, focusing on the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Grapes of Wrath and asking why Steinbeck's social concerns still hold great resonance today. Bragg visits the California orchards which formed the centrepiece of The Grapes of Wrath, where migrant labourers and growers engaged in protracted and painful political battles. Across many decades, in several America states, the classic novel has been burned and banned. Its unwavering empathy for the underprivileged and biting critique of social structures has caused it to be branded as subversive by some conservatives. Bragg also travels to the site of the "dust bowl" in Oklahoma and the Monterey coastline that helped shape Steinbeck's ideas on ecology.

Ian Hislop: When Bankers Were Good

Today on BBC Two Ian Hislop presents a provocative and amusing film about the financiers of the Victorian era, whose behaviour belies the idea that banking is always associated with recklessness and unlimited greed. In the Victorian era there was a vigorous national debate about money's moral purpose and its potential to corrupt. Some extremely wealthy Victorian bankers had a troubled relationship with their acquisitions and engaged in a good deal of soul-searching. Hislop champions these highly generous individuals, such as the millionaire merchant banker George Peabody who made a vast donation to London housing which still provides accommodation to 50,000 Londoners today. Hislop talks to a range of figures, including the chief rabbi Lord Sacks, chairman of the FSA Lord Turner, philanthropic financier Lord Rothschild and the historian (and NS contributor) A N Wilson.

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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