*. The story is an old one, originating in an 1865 novella by Nikola Leskov but with tentacles reaching even deeper. Katherine is less Lady Macbeth, climbing the social ladder only to be overtaken by conscience and events, than Medea, with a bit of Lady Chatterley and Madame Bovary thrown in. She is destructive female passion, overthrowing the traditional — yes, we can even use the word patriarchal here — order.
*. This time out (Leskov’s novella has been filmed several times, and made into an opera) we’re moving in a different direction. I mentioned in my notes on the 1962 film directed by Andrzej Wajda that Katrerina is larger than her fate. Which is to say there is something of the tragic hero to her. Not so this Katherine, played by Florence Pugh.
*. For one thing, as the message is made more determinedly feminist, she’s not a victim. For another, we’re no longer in the boonies of old Mother Russia but in an altogether more barbaric and backward place: the north of England. In Wajda’s movie the barren Katerina seeks fertility by chanting to a mare and rubbing its belly. In Wiliam Oldroyd’s telling she can’t get pregnant because her husband only masturbates as she stands in the corner. Get it? Her stepfather is also a much nastier piece of work, running the household a bit like a domestic Guantanamo and, thanks to the casting of black actors as the hired help, he’s not just a misogynist but a racist to boot.
*. Some of these changes seem intended to make the story more contemporary. Others only make a mess of things. Instead of a nephew showing up on their doorstep looking for his share of a business his family had invested in, Katherine and Sebastian (he’s the hired help, or stud) have to deal with an illegitimate child who apparently has some kind of claim to be adopted. I was really fuzzy on that part though and thought it didn’t make a lot of sense. I didn’t think an arrangement like that would fly in Victorian Britain.
*. In some ways it’s a film that’s a lot more obvious in its messaging. When the maid meets the stud in the forest he remarks of his dog that “the bitch gets restless if she’s tied up too long.” In case you missed the point, the maid responds “She was.” Ah-ha!
*. Luckily the rest of the film doesn’t content itself with pushing such a simplistic message. We suspect something is a little off when Katherine is basically raped by Sebastian . . . and she likes it! That doesn’t seem very progressive (or does it?). But the big change comes at the end, where Katherine reveals herself to be a boss bitch in the extreme, inverting the fates of the characters in the original story.
*. The point being? Better bad than dead. Much better, in fact. Morality and politics seem to have become separated in our time. Which is too bad for morality.
*. Well, at least there’s an honesty to such an approach. The problem here is not with the message but with the rather leaden presentation, which really blunts the impact of what should be the highlights. But then this Katherine is, finally, not a creature of passion like Medea but a calculating survivor. Pugh’s face is a composed mask, which makes it even more threatening. Many of her most dramatic actions are inaction, like not opening a door. She’s a negative force, mostly by being inert. She doesn’t even have to defend herself from the charge of murder. Instead she just denies it and the system takes care of the rest.
*. The way the film is shot reinforces this static quality. Pugh is often presented as something unmoveable, like a corseted statue, or flattened in a strong horizontal. The interiors have the appearance of Vermeers in their quality of moments that have been frozen in time. It’s a world that isn’t going to change, so one had best adapt to it.