In the Critics this week

Paul Morley travels on the Tube, Richard Overy on David Cannadine, Kate Mossman on Justin Bieber and much more.

In the Critics section of this week’s New Statesman, Paul Morley relives the experience of listening to his first Sony Walkman on the London Underground in 1979. “I … imagined I was the first person to sit on the Tube listening to music of my own choosing.” That music would have been the avant-garde rock that Morley himself, in the pages of the New Musical Express, had christened “post-punk”: “It was a culmination, rearrangement, refinement of experimental ideas, sounds and principles instigated by punk.” And much of it was influenced by the German group Can, whom Morley describes as “less a rock group than a compact orchestra, a jazz collective, a cartel of dreamers … This was my kind of pop group.”

In Books, the historian Richard Overy reviews David Canndine’s The Undivided Past: History Beyond Our Differences. Cannadine chastises his fellow historians for concentrating on conflict rather than on what human beings have had in common down the ages. Overy is not convinced. “There remain profound differences in the world that have deep historical roots … Appeals to a common humanity are not going to change that.”

Also in Books: John Sutherland defends Stephen Spender against charges laid by James Smith in his book British Writers and MI5 Surveillance, 1930-60 (“Spender has attracted more than his share of sneers during his lifetime and after … Among the admirable scholarship in this book, there is, I think, an injustice”); Simon Heffer reviews Does Spelling Matter? by Simon Horobin  (“This book is a sane, comprehensive and authoritative lesson in why we spell the way we do and why, in order to preserve the richness, subtlety and history of our language, it is right that we keep doing so”); Jon Day reviews John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Blood Horses: Notes of a Sportswriter’s Son (“The focus of Blood Horses is Sullivan’s relationship with his father, a poetically inclined sports journalist”); Claire Lowdon reviews This Is the Way, the second novel by Irish writer Gavin Corbett (“This fresh and funny novel is a devastating love story … that stays with you long after you’ve finished reading”); Talitha Stevenson reviews Andrew Wilson’s biography of Sylvia Plath, Mad Girl’s Love Song (“For all the posthumous inventions, some of the Plath fantasia was created by Sylvia Plath [herself]”).

Elsewhere in the Critics: Kate Mossman is forced to wait two hours for Justin Bieber to take the stage at the O2 (“Bieber comes on stage at 10.20pm, which is a bit of an issue on a Monday night for an audience of 20,000 children …”); our film critic Ryan Gilbey reviews Rufus Norris’s Broken and Robot & Frank, directed by Jake Schreier (“The joys of Robot & Frank are numerous”); Rachel Cooke reviews ITV’s Broadchurch and Mayday on BBC1 (“Aidan Gillen [in Mayday] is so compelling, it’s almost embarrassing”); Antonia Quirke listens to After Saddam on Radio 4 (“Presenter Hugh Sykes had no trouble digging up horror stories”).

PLUS: “Tremor”, a poem by Fiona Sampson, and Will Self’s Madness of Crowds.

Justin Bieber on stage (finally) at the O2 (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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