DEFINITELY NOT DOWNTON ABBEY

For years now we’ve been suckers for costume drama (cue 1729 trumpet “Fanfare-Rondeau” by Moret –the Masterpiece Classic theme).  P&P, Sense & Sensibility, and yes, the endlessly foamy Downton.

But when somebody comes along with a wicked new twist on period drama, we love it even more.

 

Lady Macbeth 2
LADY MACBETH (2016)

Not Shakespeare – this is based on “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk” a novella by Dostoevsky contemporary Andrei Leskov.

Boris, a nasty but rich old man, buys young Katherine as a wife for his equally nasty son, Alexander, who lives at home.  On their wedding night Alexander reveals that he is both kinky and impotent.  Plus, they won’t let her leave the house.

But when father and son both leave town on business (bad idea) Katherine gets out and falls into passion with a stable hand named Sebastian.  The affair opens up depths of  passion and dark resolve in the heretofore meek Katherine; before long she has disposed of both the father and the son.    The film is reportedly a breakout for Florence Pugh (Catherine).  It’s also notable for breaking with costume drama conventions and casting of black actors in both the roles of Sebastian and Katherine’s maid.

 

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Wuthering Heights Arnold
WUTHERING HEIGHTS (2011)

Casting an unknown black actor in the “Caribbean” role once occupied by Laurence Olivier and Ralph Fiennes is only one of the breaks with convention that make Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights worth watching.  There are also the Heath, which is both less inviting and more

Arnold has won the Cannes Jury Award three times for pointedly contemporary stories.  Here she worked to strip away the buffer of literary awe and invent a sort of proto-Wuthering Heights.  Her Heath is a brutal place, but teeming with life – we see a microscopic child’s eye view of the bugs and undergrowth.  The connection between the young Cathy and Heathcliffe is primal and childlike too — it knows no other way and no other world.

Very exciting and freshening.  Maybe the movie begins to take its mission to re-invent too seriously, throwing in a few too many “fucks”, “cunts” and off-kilter angles.  You still come away with the feeling that you’ve seen a vision of the book that makes you want to read it again.

If you loved the 1939 classic, you may hate this.  But we do and didn’t.

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THE DRAUGHTSMAN’S CONTRACT (1991)

 In many ways the opposite of Arnold’s film, Greenaway’s first feature imposes a surreal formalism and arch eroticism on a period that happens to be ideally suited to such an approach.

Set in 1694, the contract of the title is a commission from a rich wife to draw her absent husband’s country estate in meticulous detail – the specialty of the handsome and cocky draughtsman.

But there’s a rider to the contract.  In addition to room, board, and a small payment, the draughtsman gets to enjoy the lady’s favors whenever he desires.  After a token protestation the lady says yes.

The film is as methodical and meticulous as the draughtsman – but peppered with tiny anachronisms and incongruities.   After a while the stilted dialogue and measured pace begin to wear you down.

But then the (also married) daughter points out that tiny clues are creeping into the rigidly composed scene, and suggests that the draughtsman may be being set up as a patsy for the absent father’s murder.  She blackmails the draughtsman – by demanding the same intimate favors that he requires from her mother.

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 Angels and Insects 2
ANGELS AND INSECTS (1991)

This baroque delight was directed by sculptor Philip Haas and based on an A.S. Byatt novel. It seemed wonderfully perverse when it came out, but we just watched the trailer again and it comes off as so comically overwrought that now we need to revisit the film itself.

Roger Ebert (who liked it a lot) said it was the “dark underbelly of a Merchant-Ivory film”.

Yes, but — in an odd way, not really that dark.  What’s delightful about the film is that it takes the insect behaviors that entomologist William (Mark Rylance) has spent years studying in the Amazon, and overlays them on the hothouse manners of the aristocratic Victorian family of his patron.  Everything is brilliantly colored yet emotionally detached – until it’s punctuated by frenzied passion.

Which is exactly how blindingly blonde Eugenia Alabaster (Patsy Kensit) behaves toward William after she has astonished him by accepting his proposal.

But like Wuthering Heights it’s the brother you have to watch out for.  Douglas Henshall is Edgar Alabaster, as blond as his sister and enraged that a brunette Scotsman – penniless to boot – should lay fingers on her.  Kristen Scott Thomas is wonderful as the mousy maid whose drawings of ants eventually catch William’s eye.

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Young Doctors Notebook
A YOUNG DOCTOR’S NOTEBOOK (2012-13)

We’re still waiting for an English-language version of Mikhail Bulgakov’s posthumous delight Master and Margarita (it’s been optioned!) but in the meantime there’s this semi-autobiographical series based on the author’s short stories.

It’s a dark, dark comedy, with Daniel Radcliffe playing a young doctor graduates from med school in 1917.  It’s the middle of the Russian Revolution and he lands in one of the most backward parts of Siberia, where superstition is more credible than science and practice of the medical arts require a strong arm and an even stronger stomach.

John Hamm plays the older, wiser doctor who is not just looking back on his youth, but actually interacting with his younger self – even as he’s desperately clinging to his profession despite a rampaging addiction to  morphine.

It’s a short series, two seasons of 4 episodes each, shot on a shoestring by UK’s Sky Arts.  It’s uneven, but the draw here is the stars, especially Hamm, and a chance to get another glimpse inside Bulgakov’s mind.

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crimson-peak-wasikowska
CRIMSON PEAK (2015) 

As you would expect from Guillermo del Torro, this spooky romance out-gothics the gothics.

The movie starts in Buffalo, New York with Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowski) receiving a visit from her dead mother, with a warning “Beware Crimson Peak”.

Fourteen years later, Edith falls for British baronet Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and despite warnings from her father goes to England to live with him and his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) in the family home, which is perched above a red clay mine.

When Edith’s father and childhood friend Alan (Charlie Hunnam) discover that Sharpe has been married and widowed three times before, Alan travels to England to save her.  By this time, Edith is seeing red ghosts and coughing up blood.  It’s then that Sharpe tells her the mansion is sometimes called Crimson Peak.

The movie is good, dark fun, brimming with dark symbolism, horror movie tropes, doomed romance, and allusions to previous gothic novelists and filmmakers.

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Kris

Can't decide what to watch?FollowTheThread.
Each week Elma and I give you 5 opinionated but culturally relevant choices, based on our experience of curating smart sticky stuff for Ovation, Trio, Bravo, A&E, Sundance, Fuse, and others.
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