Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: William Oldroyd
Stars: Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis, Paul Hilton, Naomi Ackie, Christopher Fairbank, Bill Fellows, Golda Roshuevel.
Nothing to do with Shakespeare’s classic Scottish play about murder, intrigue and regicide, Lady Macbeth is actually an adaptation of Lady Macbeth Of The Mtsensk District, a nineteenth century novella written by Russian author Nikolai Leskov. The novella has been adapted as an opera in 1934 and was previously filmed in 1962 by the late Polish director Andrez Wajda. But this period drama does share a few thematic ideas with Shakespeare’s play in that it is a gothic story about dark deeds, murder and betrayal, in which the action is shaped by one strong woman.
The film is set on the bleak moors of rural England in 1865. Katherine (played by newcomer Florence Pugh) is a virginal teenager who is trapped in a loveless marriage to Alexander (Paul Hilton, from London Road, etc), an older, cold and aloof and impotent man, to settle a family debt. But Alexander has no interest in her. His disagreeable and cruel father Boris (Christopher Fairbank) insists on her being a demure and proper wife, and prohibits her from leaving the draughty house and venturing outdoors. There is a tedious rhythm to her days.
But Alexander is often absent, and Katherine takes advantage of this to go wandering around the farm and across the bleak, windy moors. She also embarks on a torrid affair with Sebastian (singer Cosmo Jarvis), the farm’s swarthy handyman. The affair with Sebastian has unforeseen ramifications for Katherine, who begins to exert her independence, as well as Alexander and the domineering Boris. The affair also unleashes something primal and animalistic in her.
The bleak setting sets the tone for this austere, chilling and sparse drama. The novel has been adapted to the screen by award winning playwright Alice Birch, who has transplanted the drama from Russia to the windswept moors of England. The intelligent and perceptive script offers up an examination of the abuse women suffered in the nineteenth century when they were often treated as chattel and possessions. Birch has a strong feminist sensibility, and examines the constraints put on women particularly in a more patriarchal society of the nineteenth century. This is a character study of an ill-fated woman who is a virtual prisoner of her cold husband and who suffers in silence until she takes charge of her own future in violent fashion. But it is also a study of class, privilege, forbidden desires, and gender issues. It seems like a cross between Andrea Arnold’s bleak 2011 version of Wuthering Heights and the lusty Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
This low budget drama marks the feature film directorial debut for William Oldroyd, who hails from a background in the theatre but his direction is assured and confident. His theatre training has shaped the film with its deliberately minimalist sets and its sparse dialogue and lack of music cues. Oldroyd brings a rather cold, sombre and austere visual style to the material. The film has a sombre and oppressive feel as Oldroyd effectively creates an air of foreboding and dread. His vision is superbly complemented by cinematographer Ari Wegner (Ruin, etc), who works with a steady camera, long takes and static shots. He also uses natural lighting to give us some dark and gloomy imagery. There are some scenes which capture Katherine, in her bright blue dress, sitting unmoving on a sofa in the loungeroom, and Wegner holds the shot for a minute. The pacing is slow and measured, and these scenes in particular will try the patience of audiences raised on a diet of kinetic music videos and action sequences.
Jacqueline Abrahams’ production design for the house is spartan, which adds to the coldness and gloomy nature of the setting. Holly Waddington’s costumes add to the authenticity of the period detail. Her bright colours for Katherine’s gowns offer a marked contrast to the rather bleak and muted tones of the setting.
Our sympathies lie with Katherine for much of the time, even when she acts horribly towards her male oppressors. In what is a breakout role, Pugh inhabits the character with a largely internal and silent performance that sees her slowly transform from reluctant bride to full on psychopath with blood on her hands. She is a strong protagonist. There is a palpable chemistry between her and Jarvis. The character of the prying and disapproving maid Anna (Doctor Who’s Naomi Ackie in her feature film debut) has been created specifically for the film to add some sexual tension and intrigue to the material.
Lady Macbeth is a stark but visually stunning, moody, uneasy and unsettling Victorian era drama of passion, lust and murder.