Lady Macbeth review – a brilliantly chilling subversion of a classic
Florence Pugh is deadly charismatic in William Oldroyd’s daring journey into the darkest corners of the world of beanies and bows
William Oldroyd’s fierce feature debut sounds like Victorian noir, a twist on a genre probably invented by Shakespeare in the first place. It just might open a dark new avenue in the world of classic literary adaptation caps and bows. His film does a lot on a limited budget. It’s smart, sexy, austere: qualities that are weaponized by a lethally charismatic lead performance from Florence Pugh as the eponymous, unrepentant killer. She is both sphinx and rascal. “You have no idea what damage you can cause,” his enraged stepfather stammers. In fact, he is the one who has no idea.
Playwright and screenwriter Alice Birch adapted Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 novel Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, itself of course based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and adapted by Shostakovich in 1934 as an opera – the work that infuriated Stalin – and Andrzej Wajda in film. , Siberian Lady Macbeth, in 1962. The new cinematic version of Oldroyd, shot with clarity and verve by cinematographer Ari Wegner, retains all the subversive sensuality of this story, making changes to the narrative, introducing or rather releasing themes of abuse, violence, race and class. Cleverly, it gives us some cryptic clues about the backstory that may or may not help explain the sudden change of direction the film takes in its third act, leading to a denouement of toxic ingenuity. And above all, he is driven by the sensuality and rage of Pugh’s performance.
The film transposes the action from Russia to the English North East of the 19th century. Pugh plays Katherine, a beautiful young woman who was married to Alexander (Paul Hilton), the moody and sexually inadequate son of a wealthy mine owner, Boris (Christopher Fairbank). It is Boris who rules the roost and evilly insists that Katherine be a wise and submissive wife. As for Alexander, his face is not even revealed to us until the irremediably catastrophic wedding night: he is essentially weak, harassed and victimized by his monstrous father.
With both men absent for long periods of time, the mischievous Katherine is imprisoned in this stark, cold mansion in the middle of the moor. Refusing to be broken-hearted, she first retreats into a dreary drowsiness, then drinks, then takes an interest in Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), the sexy and earthy young real estate worker. Sebastian is mixed-race, and maid Anna, played with clever subtlety by Naomi Ackie, is black. Their presence together and shifting personal loyalties create complex cross-currents of power with the white ruling class to whom Katherine’s allegiance is strained. Anna is also almost entirely mute, and the film tacitly invites one to wonder about the pre-existing conditions of which this might be a symptom.
This Lady Macbeth is reminiscent of Lady Chatterley (2006) by Pascale Ferran and Wuthering Heights (2011) by Andrea Arnold – in which Paul Hilton played Mr Earnshaw. There are similar ways in which racial difference is made visible and transformed into a new source of tension. The house itself is a powerful character. We’re not given a clear picture of what it looks like from the outside, in the traditional style; we’re just aware of its dark, prison-like interior. You can almost feel the icy draft as you hear the incessant creaking and creaking of floors, and doors opening and closing, like an empty church. It’s a world without comfort, without padding, and a world in which movement is easily audible and easily controllable. It feels like a vital act of defiance when Sebastian and Katherine have loud sex on the primitive marriage bed, causing the frame to vibrate, shake and grind, splitting the woodwork.
Like Katherine, Pugh has the boundless ambition of Shakespeare’s character (a single line, “It is done”, pays homage to the great ancestor), also the Flaubertian aspiration of the passionate woman subjected to the bourgeois tyranny of women, as well as the modern black obsession and criminal audacity that are beginning to gain momentum of their own. Katherine has cunning and a knack for survival. It begins with Madame Bovary and ends with Mr. Ripley. Pugh puts so much stupid insolence, so much sly delicious contempt into the word “sir”, which is addressed to his hatchet-faced men.
When Alexander returns home after his prolonged absence, seething with neurotic rage at his mere carnal presence, he accuses his dissolute wife of looking “fatter”. In fact, it’s more than the disc of Pugh’s face is now defiantly turned toward him and toward us in its serene, undisturbed whole, like a full moon.