Lee (Paul Ready) plays a torturer, shown here with favourite tool. Image: Channel 4.
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There are no clear answers in Channel 4’s conspiracy thriller Utopia

Channel 4’s Utopia is a complex and unpredictable thriller which refuses to give easy answers on the challenges of population growth.

Utopia is a Channel 4 conspiracy thriller with a complex and unpredictable storyline. The controversial show, which first aired in January 2013 and ends its second series this week, addresses Thomas Robert Malthus’s thesis that “the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man”, or put in plainer terms, that the population is accelerating too quickly for the earth to cope. It suggests what might happen if the population were to spiral out of control and an elite network set out to prevent Malthus’s prediction from becoming reality.

Utopia focuses on a group of people who know one another through an online forum. What unites them is a shared passion for a graphic novel known as “The Utopia Experiments”. Bejan, a contributor to the forum, claims to have acquired the novel’s undiscovered sequel: “Utopia Part Two”. Grant, an 11-year-old boy who also uses the forum, breaks into his house to steal it. As he does he witnesses Bejan’s murder. His killers demand to know the novel’s whereabouts. The members of the forum find themselves running from “The Network” – an unfathomably powerful organisation led by the infamous “Mr Rabbit”, an individual prepared to go to any lengths to secure the graphic novel, believed to contain the genetic code for “Janus”, a protein designed to sterilise “90-95 per cent” of the human race and create a utopian future world for those that remain.

Throughout the first two series, director Marc Mudden has worked hard at depicting “bad guys” who are nuanced and complex. Although they commit terrible acts, certain aspects of their philosophy appear frighteningly logical. The human race is dependent on oil, gas and coal. Reserves are limited. What will happen without an efficient alternative for energy? By putting a limit on the earth’s population, the Network are trying to “save the world”. In their attempts to stop them, the group who see themselves as the saviours of humanity are effectively destroying it.

Another distinctive aspect of the programme is its female roles, which are far more aggressive and domineering than the male. Mr Rabbit – who despite the masculine form of address is a woman (MI5 agent Milner, played by Geraldine James) – is the driving force behind the conspiracy, which kills “thousands” along the way. She exercises her superiority in the second series when she and her second-in-command, Leah, order Geoff, their puppet minister in the department of health, to announce “V-day”: a worldwide vaccination (sterilisation) programme. Despite Geoff refusing in episode two because it is “political suicide”, Leah simply tells him to “do as you’re told”. V-day is announced two episodes later.

Utopia throws up an interesting moral dilemma. While the Network commits many acts that would be considered evil, the end goal of their misdeeds is a morally comprehensible (and even, some might say, compassionate) one, ensuring that humans in the future will be able to live without “tearing each other to shreds” – to quote Mr Rabbit. Surely the principle of ensuring it never gets to the point where “there’s 10 billion living on a planet that can only support one”, is right? At the same time, most would see the sterilisation of masses of people are morally indefensible, regardless of the outcome. Utopia raises the stakes and immerses us in a world where choices must be made, here and now. The show urges us to look beyond good and bad, moral and immoral, to the difficulty of the question at hand.

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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