The killer and the clown

Those perennially burning issues, gender roles, class and race are the focus of two impressive and very different movies opening this week

Dendy Newtown exclusive: Lady Macbeth

As soon as the Sydney Film Festival finishes up our art house distributors start releasing the films we’ve just seen! First cab off the rank is William Oldroyd’s dark, spare but fantastic-looking feature debut, Lady Macbeth – which has nothing to do with Shakespeare, it’s actually based on a 19th century Russian novella. Set in bleak Northern Britain, this is the story of the arranged marriage of Katherine (talented newcomer Florence Pugh) and how she deals with the brutal patriarchal oppression of her times. Purchased as part of a property settlement by wealthy landowner Boris (a fantastically grumpy Christopher Fairbank) to be the young bride to his equally morose and remote son Alexander (Paul Hilton), she’s installed in their cold, spartan mansion on the moors with only a frightened black maid as company. Her only communications with anyone are Boris’ barked instructions to “do her duty and conceive”. Hardly likely, as her husband’s only contribution to that is to force her to stand naked with her back to him while he masturbates. Ok, so you’ve got the picture, this is a grim and gritty movie far removed from the soapy conventions of British heritage cinema! And Katherine is no striving feminist heroine either… She does rebel, of course she does, she’s a “spirited lass” and soon ditches her bonnets and corsets, but that only leads to lust, murder, brutality and unspeakable treachery. It’s dark, delicious stuff. You go, girl! MA15+ from June 29. ★★★★1/2

Monsieur Chocolat

Many expected the politically charged I Am Not Your Negro to walk away with the official prize at the Sydney Film Festival simply because they agreed with its message. Well, who doesn’t, but sometimes that same cry for equality and respect is better made in a way that is not simply preaching to the choir. And that’s exactly what Roschdy Zem’s Monsieur Chocolat, does – telling what (for most of us) will be a completely new story in an entertaining way. Based on a true one, it’s the bittersweet tale of “Chocolat” (Omar Sy), who we first meet in a French circus at the end of the 19th century playing a fierce cannibal. He’s the son of a slave and an illegal – but luckily his talent for physical comedy is recognized and nurtured by a clown, George Footit (James Thierrée). The pair go on to become huge stars in Paris – their slapstick act both playing to and mocking the prejudices of those in the audience. A fantastically endearing performer (Sy is perfect for the role), he was also a man of great appetites, and the “sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll” lifestyle of those times soon took its toll. But what really did him was the entrenched barely disguised racism. The movie is at its best when the personal and political are mixed up, and the complex dynamic between George and Chocolat, the white and the black man, is examined. This may be an old story, but it’s still one of burning relevance today. M from June 29. ★★★★

Reviews – Russell Edwards