Culture

Two faces of current British cinema

BEIRUT: “I, Daniel Blake,” by U.K. director Ken Loach, is the star of the 23rd edition of the city’s European Film Festival. The Cannes film festival is widely regarded to be the arbiter of great cinema hereabouts and the Palm d’Or is among the reams of prizes the feature scored last year. Loach is a veteran, with 51 titles under his belt. The other British film at the EFF this year is “Lady Macbeth,” the debut feature of William Oldroyd, which premiered at TIFF this past autumn and rebounded into 2017 with a reboot at Sundance.

Both these fine films are utterly distinct, of course, responding to quite different artistic urges. As the U.K. embarks on the ambivalent process of extracting itself from the European Union, it seems appropriate that the Anglo-Saxon presence at EFF be so strong and so diverse.

“I, Daniel Blake” is set in Newcastle, far from the throbbing economic and cultural engine of London (and, as Loach would note, Europe).

Its title names the British everyman at the center of the story – a widowed carpenter who can easily be seen as standing in for a generation of tradesmen who’ve earned a living making things with their hands.

The story commences in the wake of Blake’s heart attack. Since his doctor tells him he can’t work, he’s forced to apply for unemployment benefits until he’s back on his feet.

Blake (Dave Johns) falls afoul of a “health care professional,” who contradicts his doctor’s assessments and declares him fit for work.

So begins Blake’s Kafkaesque journey through Britain’s health care bureaucracy. The only way he can eat and pay his bills is by plying Newcastle’s meager job market for labor his doctor tells him he’s incapable of performing.

En route he meets Katie (Hayley Squires), a single mum from London. Social Services has moved her and her two kids to Newcastle as a condition to continuing her benefits.

Blake and Katie are kindred spirits – fiercely independent people who only ask for state help because they’re out of options.

Both find the social welfare system riddled with obstacles.

Outsourced to companies whose principal goal is to exclude applicants who don’t meet their rigid criteria, the welfare state systematically humiliates its citizens.

For those who don’t make the grade, the “training” it provides is premised on a competition-based model that assumes marginalized and unemployed citizens are computer-literate, social media-savvy, smartphone-toting Londoners.

If this sounds more like political critique than film criticism, it’s because that’s precisely what the filmmaker has in mind.

Loach didn’t make “Blake” as campaign fodder for the “Leave” side of the Brexit debate, but his work is an eloquent summary of the profound contradictions neoliberal economic and social policy have wrought to Britain’s social welfare system and its citizenry.

Penned by Paul Laverty, the story is less an ideological rant than a study of its principal characters, ably and realistically depicted by Johns and Squires. Its cinematography captures the intimacy and claustrophobia of depressed urban spaces – whether the council estate and food bank or the florescent sterility of the state benefits office.

“I, Daniel Blake” is a brave and unfashionable thing – a humane salute to individual dignity designed to make its audience angry about where we find ourselves today.

Shot just north of Newcastle, in Northumberland, the location of “Lady Macbeth” isn’t far from that of “Daniel Blake” in geographical terms but its aesthetic sensibility is a galaxy away.

The woman named in this title is no everyman. Oldroyd’s film is based on Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 novella “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk,” which has been multiply adapted to stage and screen.

Reworked here by Alice Birch, the film’s innovation is to take the story “home” – not to medieval Scotland but to 19th-century rural England.

There, the family of teenage Katherine has sold her and a tract of bog to Boris, the patriarch of the local landowning family, with the aim of marrying her to his middle-aged son Alexander.

The film proper begins at Anna and Alexander’s wedding ceremony, which finds Katherine (Florence Pugh) struggling to keep up with the lyrics of the high church hymns.

That night, as her chambermaid Anna prepares Katherine for her wedding night, she asks if the new bride’s nervous.

“No,” she scoffs.

You’d think it’s youthful bravado speaking. As the film develops, though, it’s obvious that – whatever worldly experience Katherine lacks – she’s well-endowed with nerve, passion too.

For his part Alexander (Paul Hilton) is the epitome of a cold fish. Wedding night foreplay takes the form of his cautioning his young bride that she’ll likely find his father’s manor house draughty. She’s not bothered, Katherine replies.

“You’ll want to stay close to the house,” he says.

“Oh but I quite like a bit of fresh air,” she rejoins.

“You’ll want to stay inside the house,” he replies.

The extent of his passion is a resentful curiosity about how Katherine looks in the nude.

The rest of her life in Alexander and Boris’ household is equally chilly, bound by the gentry’s hidebound social rhythms.

If Alexander is neglectful in his duties as a husband, Boris is more assertive in his expectations.

While Alexander and Boris are absent from the property for several days, Katherine encounters Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), the restless young groomsman who’s just joined the estate.

Most of the women in the 21st-century audience would likely find Sebastian’s unregulated energy less than refined, if not threatening. The film’s young protagonist finds him alluring. The plot of “Lady Macbeth” hinges on the fearlessness of Katherine’s passions, which takes the viewer on a jarring, vicious, at times amusing ride.

The narrative is bound by the stately order of the manor house and is nicely reflected in the sumptuous fixed camera framing of cinematographer Ari Wegner, whose exterior shots of the Northumberland landscape are uncommonly striking.

Once it gets going, Katherine’s story is yanked back and forth between this lovely fixity and the roiling passions that, once implanted in her body, prove evermore ruthless.

In Oldroyd’s hands, “Lady Macbeth” is a gorgeous projection of contemporary sensibilities upon his 19th-century source material. As such, it challenges viewers to balance Katherine’s misdemeanors with the brutishness of Alexander and Boris.

For some reason it all seems more European.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 04, 2017, on page 16.

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