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Dickensian is boring – and it’s Charles Dickens’s fault

Let’s face it: Dickens wrote potboilers. Why would it be interesting to watch half a dozen of them mashed together onscreen?

Is anyone still watching Dickensian? I mean actually watching, not just having on in the background; moving wallpaper while making dinner or thinking up your next Twitter zinger. I tried. It was a cunning ploy to launch it over Christmas when your Mum would put it on because she likes that kind of thing. But dear lord above, it’s boring.

There are a few problems that can be laid at the door of the programme makers. First of all, Dickensian doesn’t know if it’s a murder mystery or a clever look at the characters’ backstories. One minute we’re carefully unpicking the mental state of Miss Havisham, the next we’re rollicking around with Inspector Bucket pointing fingers at half the cast over Marley’s murder. (And, much as I love Stephen Rea, I don’t give a fig about the Inspector’s ongoing back problems.)

Second, it was a major error to tell those backstories at all. Everyone’s heard of Miss Havisham, and even without having read Great Expectations can probably hazard a guess that it is the dastardly Compeyson who sets her mouldering in a wedding dress. But without realising that Honoria Barbary one day grows up to be Gillian Anderson/Lady Dedlock of Bleak House, and the plot twist within that book, Captain Hawdon’s presence and his failure to get promotion is baffling. It relies, in effect, on spoilers.

Yet Dickensian’s problems run deeper than this, which we should have expected. Consider the source material. Yes, it’s really all Dickens’s fault. Despite his reputation as the world’s greatest storyteller, he couldn’t write relatable, multifaceted characters to save his life. Particularly women.

I must have been 15 when I threw a copy of A Tale of Two Cities across my bedroom. The heroine, Lucie Manette, had just fainted for what felt like the tenth time in as many chapters. I had no time for such a wilting flower and, when I finally slogged my way through the novel some decade later, felt it would have been a far, far better thing for Sidney Carton to have run as far in the opposite direction from her weedy influence as possible.

Dickens’s women are only allowed one character trait. They are either moral, mad or monstrous. To be fair, so are plenty of his men, but at least some of them have interesting interior lives. In Our Mutual Friend, anything spiky and different about Bella Wilfer evaporates the moment she falls in love (I know we’re initially meant to dislike her but at least she has personality in those early chapters).

Dickens’s daughter, the painter Kate Perugini, said her father didn’t really understand women. No kidding. Tony Jordan and Dickensian’s writers are admirably trying to shoehorn some modern feminist spirit into the script, but it’s resulting in exchanges like this:

“I’m a woman in a man’s world, of course they’ll be judging me.” – Amelia Havisham

“Why shouldn’t you be in charge? A woman rules our country, our whole Empire.” – Honoria Barbary

The clanging of that dialogue could wake up Rip van Winkle.

And still I blame Dickens rather than the scriptwriters. The core attribute of the central female characters is “simpering”; change that too much and the conceit that these are Dickens’s creations is lost. (Note to the BBC: you should have hung on to Julia Davis. Then if you wanted a Victorian serial you could have had Hunderby.)

Let’s face it: Dickens wrote potboilers. Plot is important in serialisation; characters with rich inner lives and complex motivations less so. He wrote characters in the cartoon sense, emphasised by his insistence on giving them ridiculous names. You can imagine the delight in the Dickensian writers’ room as they came up with the so-far uncanonical Fanny Biggetywitch. Wonder how she’s going to turn out.

You might argue that Dickens christened his characters with such names to instantly connect with his readers. I’d argue that introducing Mr Heinous Evil-Bastard and Miss Simperingly Delightful in chapter three is an eye-roll inducing exercise in nominative determinism. Congratulations, you can now work out the rough plot. Have fun wasting time with the next 50 chapters.

Dickensian has started from the assumption that we will engage with its dull plots because we care about the people. Yet Dickens created one-dimensional ciphers to service his more important narrative twists; twists that Dickensian is relying on viewers knowing about before they even showed up. The result is a show that has a hole where its heart should be. And that’s your fault, Charles.

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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