In the Critics this Week

Birds, an exclusive short story by Hanif Kureishi, Mexican art and Elizabeth Taylor.

The first extensive review in this week’s Critics section comes from John Burnside, who looks at the “gorgeously produced” Birds and People, a book by Mark Cocker and David Tipling. Burnside notes how topical this 600-page compendium is, as it focuses on our exploitation of birds, as well as celebrating birdlife.

Burnside uses the review to discuss the danger birds face in the UK, and asks, what can we do to ensure that in future, a book that “avowedly “explores and celebrates” our relationship with birds need not refer so frequently to habitat loss, deforestation and various forms of direct persecution?”.

...Emmanuel Levinas created a philosophy in which each of us is confronted with what he calls “the face” of the other, which implores and challenge us not to do it harm, but to respond to it from a position that goes beyond mere respect, or even compassion- a position that, because it understands the necessity of the other to our own continued being approaches the deeply unfashionable condition of reverence. That we can see reverence for birds as old-fashioned or sentimental is merely another indicator of our own outmoded thinking with regard to human success, a solipsistic mode of thinking that takes such absurd indicators as GDP or the Dow Jones as measures of prosperity.

Burnside produces an infectiously passionate review, critiquing our treatment of birds and our society more broadly.

The Critics section this week also features a short story by Hanif Kureishi on the end of a marriage. Entitled The Racer, the story follows a man and his wife, “in the week of their divorce, before they moved out of the house they shared with the children and stepchildren for twelve years”. The fraught couple agree to race each other around their neighbourhood.

Outside on the street, he bent forwards and backwards and jiggled on his toes, churning his arms. She stood next to him impatiently. He couldn’t bear to look at her. She had said that she was eager to get on with her life. For that he was glad. Surely, then, he couldn’t take this ridiculous bout seriously? The two must have looked idiotic, standing there glaring, seething and stamping. Where was his wisdom and maturity? Yet nothing had been as important as this before.

He concentrated on his breathing and began to jog on the spot. He would run to the edge of himself. He would run because he’d made another mistake. He would run because they could not be in the same room, and because the worst of her was inside him.

Kureishi's story is gripping from the very first sentence.

The Critics art section this week includes Michael Prodger’s review of Mexico: a Revolution in Art currently exhibiting at the Royal Academy of Arts. Prodger lambasts the fact that the review misses the most obvious, most unique feature of Mexican art, the “public murals and especially ... the nationalist, socialist and historical wall paintings of 'los tres grandes'”.

Unsurprisingly, in an exhibition held five and a half thousand miles from Mexico and in the small rooms of the RA’s Sackler Galleries, there are no murals to be seen.

What there is instead is a selection of paintings and photographs by both Mexicans and foreigners that illustrate something of the countries turbulent social and artistic progress during the three formative decades from the outbreak of the revolution in 1910 to the end of the presidency of Lazaro Cardenas, the last revolutionary office holder, in 1940. While there is a single painting by each of the big three- and a tiny, Nicholas Hilliardesque miniature by Rivera’s wife, the overrated darling of Mexican painting, Frida Kahlo- the rest of the show, sans murals, is a curious artistic sampling that tries to ignore the elephant in the room.

Prodger offers insightful criticism of an exhibition that only succeeds in documenting what happened in the Mexican revolution, “an unusual exhibition in that it contains few pictures of the highest quality and no indisputable masterpieces.”

This week’s television section features Rachel Cooke’s critique of BBC 4’s Burton and Taylor. Cooke gives a brief history of other BBC 4 biopics before analysing the performances of Helen Bonham Carter as Taylor, and Dominic West as Burton.

Wow. I didn’t entirely buy Bonham Carter as Taylor, though her acting was superlative (film-star spoilt is harder to play than you think). But West, I totally bought. It was like watching Burton, only...better. West is a more accomplished actor than Burton, or at any rate, a less hammy one, and he is twice as sexy, if you ask me. The voice- coal wrapped in velvet- was perfect (”the theatrical equivalent of a big cock,” said this version of Burton, when Taylor praised it), and the manner was suitably retro: Terry: Thomas meets Dylan Thomas. I cant believe there is a man alive who looks better in a camel pea coat than west.

Cooke goes on to praise the writer, William Ivory, in her rich and entertaining review.

This week’s extended critics section also features:

  • A host of summer reading recommendations from our contributors
  • A review of Ben Wilson’s Empire of the Deep: the Rise and Fall of the British Navy by Stephen Taylor
  • The Best Art Noveau Restaurant in Europe, a poem by Tim Liardet
  • Jane Shilling’s review of A Long Walk Home: One Women’s Story of Kidnap, Hostage, Loss- and Survival by Judith Tebbutt
  • Tom Fort’s critique of End of Night, a book by Paul Bogard
  • Sarah Churchwell’s review of Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld
  • Stuart Burrows analyses What Maisie Knew the new film adaptation of Henry James’s 1897 novel
  • An investigation of the enduring appeal of crime fiction by Ian Sansom
  • Ryan Gilbey’s review of the film Frances Ha
  • Antonia Quirke offers her opinions on Talk Sport Radio’s Fisherman’s Blues
  • Geoffrey Wheatcroft attends the Schubertiade festival in Austria
Michael Prodger is less than impressed with the exhibition of Mexican art at the Royal Academy of Arts. Picture: 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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