Lady Macbeth is a film adaptation of an 1865 Russian novel by Nikolai Keskov, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District which obviously draws heavy literary inspiration from a certain leading lady from an Elizabethan play, you’ve probably never heard of. It is written and adapted for screen by Alice Burch, directed by William Oldroyd, and stars Florence Pugh as ‘Lady Macbeth’ – in this case Lady Katherine – a young woman who is expected to conform to a very Victorian idea of femininity, but simply does not, to put it mildly.
We start the film with a closeup of Lady Katherine on her wedding day. As with the audience, it’s as if she has just suddenly warped into the scene and like us is trying to get her bearings only to realise with a certain degree of terror that she is being married off to some man. We jump to her wedding night, where after a fleeting exchange of small talk with her new husband Alexander (Paul Hilton), she is instructed to disrobe in what we presume is the starting act to consummate the marriage. An economic exchange devoid of all passion and romance. Her husband can only looks on with vague disappointment, before getting into bed in his pantaloons and turning the lights off – leaving his bride standing naked in the dark.
From there, Katherine leads a life of stifling boredom within this manor house. She is tended to by a servant Anna (Naomi Ackie) who through her silent subservience is largely unreachable. She is instructed to stay indoors because god forbid she ventures outside and is corrupted by all that fresh air. She doesn’t seem to be able to sleep at night in her marriage bed but finds herself nodding off during the day when she is expected to represent her husband. As dictated by her strict father-in-law (Christopher Fairbank) Katherine is there to produce offspring for her husband and maintain the household.
It is only when her husband and father in law leaves the estate on business she is able to come into her own. Taking a strong liking to a day-labourer Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), together they work to relieve the boredom quite effectively. Katherine becomes all too devoted to her new lover which causes problems with her husband once he returns – to say the least.
Titling your movie Lady Macbeth obviously carries a lot of baggage, Shakespeare’s archetypal terrible woman is this spectre of all scheming malevolence, manipulating others behind the scenes in a quest for power that slowly consumes her and her husband to a point she can no longer control, to the point in which she is basically written out of the play – exit stage via tower window left. Whilst she has been a largely unsympathetic character, the kind of woman who would dash out the brains of a newborn if it meant she could gain what she wanted! It has been the mission of artists throughout the centuries to find some means to humanise what is a extremely prominent role, see Marion Cotillard in Justin Kurzel’s most recent cinematic adaptation of Macbeth.
It is a potentially massive role for any budding actress, but especially in this case, for a young actress. From the beginning, Florence Pugh is the star of the show and is able to show great range as the magnetic Lady Katherine. As the cinematic time travellers we are, it is easy to relate to her situation and the unjustness and expectations of her within the customs of the Victorian era. We understand why anyone would rebel against that, and obviously when Katherine starts rebelling in her own playful manner, we are completely on her side. Through Pugh we sense Katherine’s hopelessness, her boredom, her realisation, her rebellion, her resolve, her character is evolving and growing with every single scene, and it is electrifying to watch even when she grows beyond the audience’s sympathies.
The rest of the ensemble cast provide strong support to Pugh’s powerhouse performance. In particular, Naomi Ackle as Anna the long suffering servant. I guess you are hoping at points that Anna will side with Katherine to really stick the boot in but this is all wishful thinking on my part, and so she perseveres with this meekness and by the end it’s impossible not to feel really sorry for her. Paul Hilton and his onscreen father Christopher Fairbank are both a little one note, since they’re there to be the cruel and oppressive masculine force the film revolts against. Christopher Fairbank as the father, just has that kind of demonic PE teacher vibe that always affects me at a deep emotional level, making me feel like an overweight 11 year old again. Also musician Cosmo Jarvis as the love interest, is basically there to fulfill the role of the sex, but when things get increasingly out of hand, the veneer begins to fall and he becomes a lot more desperate and relatable. He’s no Macbeth or Sean Bean but that’s kind of the point. Poor bloke.
For a period drama Lady Macbeth feels quite contemporary. Obviously in it’s feminist rebellion of the usual theatrics of the genre and the age. The way scenes are orchestrated with a kind of meticulous Wes Anderson styled approach of the boundaries of the screen facilitating the confines of a particular room making you feel slightly claustrophobic. With characters sitting dead centre, talking as if directly at you, rooting you firmly in place and the period. In contrast shots of the rolling mists across the wild moors is your and Katherine’s only sense of relief in the early act of the film.
Added to this, most of the ensemble cast speak with a Northern twang when we are used to these period pieces containing only the best upper class English accents. There is a sense of class based restlessness, the men are desperately occupied with business leaving the women alone in an empty household and material opulence no one is particularly enjoying.
There is a minimalist approach to the staging of each scene, despite taking place within this grand manner house and grounds. It is a film that is as concerned with the sense of silence where bored sighs suddenly become explosive and every interaction feels amplified and meaningful to the progression of plot and deeply personal tone. There is also a black sense of humour, a slyness, that feels very similar to the darker comedies of the Coen Brothers.
Are you convinced yet?
At the same time, there is enough of what fans would expect from the more spiritual dimensions of period romances, whether it’s the romantic whimsy of running around sparse drizzly moorland a la Wuthering Heights, or the rampant lustiness of Lady Chatterly’s Lover. Just don’t expect the social manoeuvring you’d expect from a Jane Austen novel.
The posters speak of this mesmerising display of sex and violence, which is only half of the truth but this is what you got to do to sell tickets. It’s far more direct, grounded yet understated, the progression feels very organic and nothing feels out of place. It’s quite amazing what they managed to accomplish with such a small budget, in an age where films are either getting much bigger or much smaller, with the middle ground shrinking, Lady Macbeth proves the virtue of less being more. Writing, performance and tone are everything you need to engross an audience from start to finish.
I arrived to Lady Macbeth knowing not much about it at all, aside from the expectations eluded to by it’s title. It’s a small film to be sure, but an explosive one. It’s dark but unexpectedly funny throughout, it engrosses you completely from start to finish. It contains a startling debut performance from Florence Pugh, I think it’s safe to assume we’ll see her in a great deal more, I wouldn’t be surprised if a Star War came knocking. Ultimately, with Lady Macbeth you end up feeling you’ve actively watched something, that you’ve had that kind of pure dialogue between you and the screen. Which in mind, is the hallmarks of a great film.
Go seek it out!