LADY MACBETH – Review
Director William Oldroyd’s LADY MACBETH is not Shakespeare but it is certainly Shakespearean in its bloody mix of murder and sex. The story is not about Shakespeare’s murderously ambitious character but is based on a 19th century Russian novel, “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District” by Nikolai Leskov, inspired by Shakespeare. The novel focuses on 19th century society’s strict constraints on women, driving one woman to mad, extreme measures, but this brilliant, gripping thriller of a film takes it further, into questions of class and race.
A powerful performance by beautiful Florence Pugh is sure to keep audiences on the edge of their seats. This costume drama is anything but restrained, apart from the corsets and the strict limits placed on women of the era, and anything but typical of the genteel genre. Director William Oldroyd makes a strong film debut but he and scriptwriter Alice Burch came out of the theater, and clearly know what they are doing here. At the center of this maelstrom, is actress Florence Pugh in a searing performance likely to launch her to stardom.
Pugh’s central performance gives the film much of the film’s allure but this character is no simple heroine. She is enigmatic, engaging in murderous behavior that chills both the audience and the other characters around her. The film is more like horror, with a moral ambiguity and a disturbing mix of violence, sex, desperation, and class division.
The film resets the story from Russia to 1865 rural northern England, in a windswept landscape of moors. At 17, beautiful Katherine (Florence Pugh) has been married off to 40-year-old Alexander (Paul Hilton), the son of a wealthy mine owner and businessman, in a marriage arranged by her father-in-law Boris (Christopher Fairbanks) who essentially bought her along with a parcel of land. Still, Katherine does not seem to object to the arrangement, and sees to look forward to being the mistress of a fine manor house, and even to her wedding night. However, her distant bridegroom Alexander does not warm up even when they are alone in their bedroom, not even attempting to consummate the marriage. Katherine is confused, disappointed even, but clearly has hopes things will improve. They don’t.
Instead, Katherine is brutally ignored by both her weak husband and her domineering father-in-law, who hardly speak to her even at dinner. She is ordered to not even leave the house, not even walk around the grounds, by her husband, who seems angry that she is there. Her father-in-law Boris rules his business dealings and his son with an iron fist, and treats his new daughter-in-law like the purchased goods she is, only there to produce an heir.
Katherine is left alone in the isolated rural mansion, with only her black servant Anna (Naomi Ackie) as company. Morose Anna is not much company, rarely speaking, and Katherine wanders the empty house with nothing to do, her meekness shifting to a sullen anger.
An explosion at one of the mines prompts Boris sends his son to deal with the matter, and then Boris himself then leaves on a business trip, With both men gone, Katherine becomes emboldened, and ventures out to walk the property. Eventually she encounters a bold, handsome mixed-race stable hand named Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis). Opportunistic, insolent and fearless, Sebastian drops his interest in the maid Anna and turns his attentions of the manor’s mistress. When he pushes his way into her bedroom, Katherine resists after first, but then succumbs in her sexual frustration. Once her passion is unleashed, it sets in motion a bloody sequence of events.
Pugh is excellent as Katherine, who starts out like a Madame Bovary but quickly shifts into something far more malevolent. As the film progresses, Pugh’s face becomes harder to read, unsettling the viewer as Katherine’s actions become more violent and reckless, and her motivations less clear. The only thing clear is her desperation not to return to her stifling life.
Beyond Pugh’s gripping performance, all the cast are excellent as well. Jarvis plays the roguish Sebastian well, confident in his ability as a seducer and ambitious to move up, boldly wearing the master’s fine clothes as longs to step into his role. Naomi Ackie is a revelation as Anna, a quivering mass of stress and bottled up frustration, rendered mute by what she has experienced. While Pugh’s Katherine becomes more unreadable as events progress, Ackie’s Anna’s expressive face speaks volumes. Christopher Fairbanks is strong as brutal, bullying Boris, whose assumptions about Katherine’s lack of brains costs him mightily. Paul Hilton is also good as Alexander, a role that requires him to convey a creepy, abusive disdain for his wife, which contributes to her transformation.
Oldroyd fills the empty house with loud silence, as Katherine sits and stares out the window. Everyday, Anna dresses her hoop skirt and corset, decked out in silk finery and perfectly groomed, only to sit ignored and alone. Cinematographer Ari Wegner captures the mix of beauty and austerity in Katherine’s gilded cage. The photography adds to the film’s sense of claustrophobia, giving us interior views with the world seen through windows. Even when Katherine ventures out, what we see is restrained to her experience rather than long vistas, even a view of the house’s full exterior. It is very much Katherine’s viewpoint, as mysterious as she is to us.
The cold-blooded nature of the violence in this film is shocking, amplified by Pugh’s often inscrutable face and the desperate fury of her actions. At first, beautiful young Katherine wins our sympathy but as events unfold, where our sympathies should lie becomes much more murky.
This film, like the novel, focuses on the severe restraints placed on women in the 19th century but expands on that theme to include class and race. Director Oldroyd and scriptwriter Alice Birch departs from the novel’s plot, to come up with a better tale. While race is never mentioned directly but presence of the black and mixed race characters underscore the class divide more starkly. Both Anna and Sebastian have African ancestry, but so do a couple of characters who appear later in the film, characters whose arrival provide a backstory to help explain some of what has been going on at the house. While Katherine has little power as a woman, she has a certain amount of power as member of the white upper class into which she has married.
LADY MACBETH is a wonderfully chilling and unexpected twist on the costume drama, possibly launching a groundbreaking new direction for the genre. This highly-entertaining and intelligent, if unsettling, drama is a heck of a debut for director William Oldroyd and likely a star-making role for its lead Florence Pugh.
RATING: 4 1/2 out of 5 stars