Director: William Oldroyd
Cast: Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis, Paul Hilton, Christopher Fairbank, Naomi Ackie
Running time: 89 minutes
A certain musician – who shares his name with a popular food dish – once exclaimed to the world that “I would do anything for love, but I won’t do that.” Well, in the case of Florence Pugh’s titular character in Alice Birch’s adaptation of Nikolai Leskov’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, she would, and she will. A dark, seductive, and assured costume noir, William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth is certainly one Bat Outta Hell.
Taking us back to Victorian Northumberland, Oldroyd’s film follows teenage Katherine (Pugh) who, while her oppressive wealthy older husband (Hilton) is away, embarks upon an affair with stable groom Sebastian (Jarvis). A path of lust, love, and murder is soon paved as Katherine is seduced by her growing power.
If you think that Lady Macbeth will bring back memories of GCSE days of monotonous class readings of Shakespeare, then think again. In fact, there is hardly any trace of Bill – or Scotland for that matter – here whatsoever. Instead, Birch’s screenplay (based on an 1865 Russian text), and Oldroyd’s acute attention to tone is far more akin to Brontë’s classic Wuthering Heights, in a film where large sombre strokes are painted across a canvas of Victorian period drama. We are first introduced to Katherine playing the passive, abused young wife with an obedience that brilliantly lures us falsely into a familiar narrative territory. She is largely imprisoned within the four (hundred) walls of her vast residence, confined to the social expectations forced upon her, and trapped in a marriage where her husband’s sexual ability is unable to go much beyond self-arousal. However, as the film’s hierarchical male presence quickly falls away, so too does the acceptance of the established patriarchy as Katherine promptly and confidently fills the power vacuum; and from there, she simply refuses to budge. Conflicts inevitably arise, particularly when said male presence returns, but beneath the dresses and calm, often emotionless demeanour, there is an unfaltering anger and desire at work within Katherine, threatening to bubble over when she falls for stable worker Sebastian. She is a woman who knows exactly what she wants and how to get it, and as both her feelings for him and the publicity of their romance grows, so too does her disregard for social and gender convention as she firmly grabs the proverbial bull horns (and resulting innuendo) with both hands.
Structurally, Oldroyd cleverly holds off adopting an omniscient narrative viewpoint at times, so that the increasingly sinister turns the film takes are largely suggestive and restricted to only a handful of locations. And this is where the film’s thematic prowess really comes to the fore. The literal restriction of location and tightly laced-up costume is brilliantly juxtaposed with Katherine’s walks across the windy, seemingly endless landscape and liberating sexual episodes with Sebastian. Katherine, just as her location and feelings, becomes increasingly wild and untameable, reinforced by the very fact that at times, we as viewers, fail to track her every move. Even the film’s disturbing climax, while lined with an aura of predictability, still hits home with incomprehensible shock.
And it is thanks in no small part to the baby-faced 19-year old Pugh whose arresting performance brings much of the power to this brilliantly dark tale. Often saying as much with a glance or blank expression as she does with her actions, Pugh is a startling talent for whom stardom surely awaits. Alongside her, Hilton, Fairbank and Jarvis all chip in with their fair share of unpleasantness in a film where the characters – save perhaps for Naomi Ackie’s near-mute black maid Anna – are about as likeable as the cast of Made in Chelsea doing a cover of Rebecca Black’s Friday.
Lady Macbeth is an altogether accomplished and profound piece, that never feels drawn out or over cooked. Those nurtured solely on the Dickensian mould of Victorian storytelling might leave with their narrative expectations beaten black and blue, but Oldroyd’s film also throws contemporary issues and dilemmas at us while wearing a glove of period melodrama.