Monday, 15 May 2017
Lady Macbeth (UK 2016: Dir William Oldroyd)
With Boris away for long periods of time and only her maid Anna for (virtually mute) company, Katherine's life is a routine of dressing in finery and wandering the austere rooms of the country house. She enters into a profoundly physical relationship with Sebastian, a groom, after seeing he and others setting upon a naked Anna in the estate's outbuildings. The affair triggers a sense of opportunity and confidence in Alexander's wife, although Boris attempts to control Katherine's new found sense of freedom. This struggle will set in motion a chain of tragic and ruthless acts in which she attempts to assume control of the household and her own destiny.
Based on 'Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District,' an 1865 novella by Nikolai Leskov, William Oldroyd transposes the events from Russia to the Northumberland of the 19th century and, via Alice Birch's minimal script, reduces the complexity of the original text, keeping the story relatively simple, and setting the events in sedate country surroundings (actually Lambton Castle in County Durham).
Central to the film's success is Florence Pugh as Katherine. Much has been made of this being a pivotal role for the young actor (who had previously starred in the otherwise rather underwhelming 2014 film The Falling). Pugh's impassive face, barely masking the ruthlessness and icy determination of the young woman within, is mirrored in the constricting clothes she wears, her lust imprisoned in crinoline and whalebone corsets. It's an extremely impressive performance but one that somehow becomes less convincing as events in the film become more extreme. The small details are where the power is to be found; a scene where she privately tries on her mask of grief is very effective, as are recurring shots of Katherine sitting calmly, perfectly posed with her formal dress spread put on her seat, with just a few stray wisps of hair as the only outward indication of what rages within.
The cast surrounding Pugh are also very effective: relative newcomers Cosmo Jarvis and Naomi Ackie underplay well as rough round the edges Sebastian and downtrodden maid Anna; and Christopher Fairbank's turn as Boris is a brilliant portrayal of anger and disappointment.
Although clearly filmed on a budget (less than £500,000 apparently) the film makes the best of its surroundings, only occasionally feeling like costumed actors in a National Trust house. The film's look almost expects the addition of a lavish score - so inured are we to the conventions of TV costume drama (ironically then this film is part funded by the BBC), but the director wisely avoids this in favour of an almost entirely natural soundtrack where the noises of living (and loving) fill the space.
William Oldroyd has delivered a very impressive debut feature. Maybe his training in theatre makes the mannered first half of the film just too big a contrast with the 'revenge tragedy' events of the second - this sometimes feel likes Madame Bovary crossed with the 1970s rural love and drama TV series Country Matters. But it's gripping stuff watching the transformation of Katherine from bought wife to mistress in control, and the price she'll pay for her status.