Tuesday 17 October 2017

Movie reviews: Lady Macbeth, The Promise, Heal the Living

  • Lady Macbeth (16, 89mins), 5 Stars
  • The Promise (12A, 133mins), 3 Stars
  • Heal the Living (12A, 104mins), 3 Stars
Dark mood: Florence Pugh is outstanding as Katherine in Lady Macbeth
Dark mood: Florence Pugh is outstanding as Katherine in Lady Macbeth

Paul Whitington

First things first: this Lady Macbeth is not the scheming Scotswoman immortalised by Shakespeare, but the wily heroine of a mid-19th century Russian novel by Nikolai Leskov. Over the years this agreeably gothic tale of domestic oppression has inspired a ballet, an opera (by Shostakovich), a Polish film and now the British Lady Macbeth.

Screenwriter Alice Birch has deftly transplanted Leskov's story to 19th century rural England, and given it the ominous backdrop of the industrial revolution. Though in theory the mistress of a large Northumbrian estate, young bride Katherine (Florence Pugh) is unhappy with her lot. Sold by her father to a coal magnate called Boris (Christopher Fairbank), she was forced to marry Boris's son Alexander (Paul Hilton), a surly brute.

When he's away, Katherine takes up with a cocksure groomsman called James (Cosmo Jarvis). She soon grows weary of hiding this indiscretion, and begins to consider a drastic solution to her problems.

Beautifully photographed and made for half nothing, William Oldroyd's film moves beyond the chintzy vision of 19th century English life beloved of Jane Austen adaptations into something darker, damper, more realistic. The house Katherine inhabits is unkempt, almost shabby, and her favourite blue crinoline dress grows tattered about the edges as the film progresses.

Pugh is outstandingly good as the spirited but ruthless young bride, who starts out as a seething victim before seizing control of her life in spectacular fashion. And as the mood darkens, Lady Macbeth starts to look like a horror film orchestrated by Emily Bronte.

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In the spring of 1915, the Ottoman Turks began a covert campaign of terror and repression that seemed designed to wipe the Armenian race off the face of the earth. Able-bodied Armenian men were either massacred on the spot or worked to death in labour camps, while women, children and the elderly were marched into the Syrian deserts to die. Between 1915 and the early 1920s, about half of the Ottoman Empire's Armenian population, or 1.5 million people, were wiped out.

This seldom investigated crime against humanity is the subject of Terry George's The Promise, a workmanlike but very watchable historical drama starring Oscar Issac as Mikael, an ambitious young Armenian man who arrives in Istanbul with dreams of becoming a doctor. He's betrothed to a girl from his village, but when Mikeal meets a sophisticated beauty called Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), he falls in love.

His pangs of guilt about all this are rudely interrupted by a pogrom against the city's Armenians. It's just the start of a nightmare that will wipe out Mikael's home village and lead to a desperate race to escape annihilation. Christian Bale is underused playing a hard-drinking American journalist, and at times the film drifts into soapy melodrama. But overall The Promise tells its story well, and should be commended for doing so.

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Katell Quillévéré's Franco-Belgian drama Heal the Living is worth watching for its opening scenes alone. In them, we watch free-wheeling teen Simon (Gabin Verdet) sneak out of his girlfriend's house at dawn and join his friends for a trip down the coast to surf. Those surfing scenes are sublimely handled, but on the journey home the boys crash, and Simon is left brain-dead and comatose.

His parents (Emmanuelle Seigner, Kool Shen) find it very hard to deal with the idea that their son is there and not there, and things get worse when a well-meaning doctor (Tahar Rahim) asks them to consider donating Simon's organs before the plug is pulled. Their grief is potently explored, but once the story shifts to the potential recipients of Simon's bits, Heal the Living begins to seem less like a drama and more like a well-made medical documentary.

Irish Independent

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