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Two Souls Adrift: One a Victorian Vixen and the Other a TV-Obsessed Man-Child

Lady Macbeth
No, this is not a new cinematic version of the Shakespeare classic taken from the point of view of one of the principal protagonists; its source is not even the Bard (even at one remove). This new British import is quite a different tale whose origin is the 1865 novella “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk” by Russian writer Nikolai Leskov, a subversive tale of its time which also became the subject of a 1934 opera by Dmitri Shostakovich. This is not the story of a tortured queen crying “out damned spot” but of a teenage girl testing her feelings of lust against stolid male prerogatives (the film, now in theaters and running 89 mins., is not rated but contains sexual material ).

Newly married Katherine (Florence Pugh) exists in a loveless and sexless marriage to

the much older Alexander (Paul Hilton) and is mostly confined to his family’s rural farmhouse and exhorted “to improve in her duties as a wife.” An incident involving her family’s mining enterprise sends her husband away for a time, and she comes under the thumb of Alexander’s father Boris (Christopher Fairbank), a vile misogynist. Her personal strictures are mirrored by her physical ones, as we see her yanked into her Victorian apparel repeatedly by her black servant Anna (Naomi Ackie). Able to sneak away at times, she is smitten by a groomsman on the estate, Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), and the two begin a clandestine affair. Headstrong and clever, the repressed Katherine, now feeling emboldened, purposefully looks to rid herself of her male tormenters.

First time film director William Oldroyd manages to place its shocking subject matter in a cool-as-a-cucumber environment. The farmhouse is explored so thoroughly that we could almost draw a floor plan, and time and again we see Katherine, confined in crinoline, in lovingly symmetrical shots, each room a kind of cage. It is these kinds of straight-on interiors that were recently on display in Terence Davies’ “A Quiet Passion,” another Victorian-era piece.

The test here is for Florence Pugh, who walks the high wire from sullen maiden through fervid lover to wicked schemer over the course of the drama. She acquits herself decently in all three modes, though perhaps less fully in the second role as a kind of Lady Chatterly on the Farm. There is some chemistry between her and the shaggy Sebastian, but she shines brightest when she turns to the calculating character in the last act. She remains, however, somewhat of a naïf when she doesn’t realize how her murderous streak can turn off even a fervent lover. What she does is, of course, dastardly, but in the context of this narrative at least, it is partially justified by the overweening postures of the two other men in her life. That her antagonists are one-dimensional brutes with zero redeeming traits undercuts the drama of the piece but Pugh remains cool.

Let’s just say that this English period piece in a bucolic setting is no “Masterpiece Theatre” episode, but rather a stern lesson in 19th C. grrlll power.

Brigsby Bear
This offbeat comedy-drama from the mind of Kyle Mooney, currently a cast member of “Saturday Night Live,” is a mix of twee, disquieting, and dorky, but it ultimately resonates with real sincerity and sentiment. At its best, it is ineluctably sweet (the film, opening August 4, is rated “PG-13” and runs 140 minutes).

James (Mooney) is a 25-year-old man whose whole life revolves around videos of a cheesy TV show called “Brigsby Bear,” starring a figure in a giant bear’s head who rights wrongs in some imaginary sci-fi world with the aid of a pair of twin girls (the filmmakers admit that their creation takes off from the 1980’s popular kiddie bear named Teddy Ruxpin). The show, viewed on old cruddy VHS tapes, is James’ whole life because he was abducted as an infant by a pair of fake parents Ted and April (Mark Hamill and Jane Adams) and has been raised in an underground bunker being force-fed this show (his “parents” claim the outside world is toxic). When the authorities finally invade the bunker and apprehend the miscreants, James is saved by the police–bonding with Det. Vogel (Greg Kinnear)–then placed into the hands of his real parents, Greg and Louise Pope (Matt Walsh and Michaela Watkins) who know nothing of his fantasy life.

The humor and the pathos of the film stems from the classic fish-out-of-water premise as James, whose every reference is to his nutty TV show, tries to navigate a wider world where absolutely everything has to be learned anew. This makes for poignant scenes with his real parents (played absolutely straight and not as clueless dummies), testy ones with his hostile younger sister Aubrey (Ryan Simpson), plus awkward ones with his sister’s cool teen crowd. One thing James has going for him, though, is that he has native smarts and proves supremely adaptable. Far from being cowed or overwhelmed by the outside world and its chaos (like the poor little Jack in 2005’s “Room”), he easily absorbs the catch phrases and mores of his new environment while never forgoing his immersion in “Brigsby.” While a comedy at base, “Brigsby Bear” contains moving moments also. His halting adjustments to life constitute not so much a “Revenge of the Nerds,” as a Triumph of a Nerd.

Mooney, the SNLer with the shaggy mop and turned-up brows, wrote the book for the film and conceived the project with old buddies Dave McCary (who directs) and Kevin Costello (who co-wrote the screenplay). He stars as James and, in his full-on commitment to his character, makes what could have been a tedious geek into an appealing man-child. His “Brigsby” fixation at first alienates him from newfound family and friends and even leads to his brief confinement at a mental clinic (little comedy here). Still, his unquenchable spirit eventually comes to redound to his benefit as all recognize his earnestness and come to work with him to craft his own movie with him starring as the bear character himself.

“Brigsby Bear” is hardly a masterpiece. There are clichés: the hostile teen personified by dour Aubrey, the overused trope of a kids’ party going sour in loco parentis, some cornball exchanges…others. But what makes it work overall is the childlike honesty of James’ obsession, by turns dark and unsettling, touching and giddy.

Hill resident Mike Canning has written on movies for the Hill Rag since 1993 and is a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association. He is the author of “Hollywood on the Potomac: How the Movies View Washington, DC.” His reviews and writings on film can be found online at www.mikesflix.com.

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