Director: William Oldroyd Starring: Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis, Naomi Ackie, Christopher Fairbank, Paul Hilton Running Time: 89 minutes
It can tend to get a bit grim in the English countryside. The foggy fields suggest a certain emptiness, a setting where taciturn people keep secrets from each other until either their passions suddenly ignite or they Eleanor Rigby themselves to quiet, dignified, sad demises. Take the similarly cheer-resistant world of Russian literature and place it in that setting and you’re unlikely to end up with the feel good hit of the summer. But as evidenced by Alice Birch and William Oldroyd’s adaptation of Nikolai Leskov’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District, what you do end up with is a captivatingly twisted take on English costume drama that you can’t take your eyes away from.
Florence Pugh plays a young woman named Katherine who is married off to an older, impotent man whom she cannot stand; she’s the sweetener to a land deal carried out by her loathsome father-in-law Boris. Katherine chafes against Boris and son Alexander’s expectations of her immediately. She’s as subversive as a woman essentially being held prisoner in their cold manor house can be, sleeping for as long as possible, drinking rigorously and before long, riding the handsome and dangerous new stable hand Sebastian, rocking the marital bed her drip husband could make little use of. The film’s early stages make it easy to root for Katherine, she’s bold and charismatic and the visual style echoes her own trapped feeling. The dreary home and the expansive outdoors Katherine enjoys so much are skillfully contrasted by cinematographer Ari Wegner and the firm camera staging by Oldroyd and rigidly consistent edit by Nick Emerson keep the subject of the frame dead center through most of the early scenes, sharpening the focus on the feeling of helplessness Katherine feels as she’s dominated by cruel, useless men who see her only as property. The first moment she truly has to herself sees her walk literally out of shot, likewise it’s when she’s out of the frequently busy Boris and Alexander’s sight that we start to see the true Katherine thrive.
But just because these men and the toxic societal structure that props them up also keeps her down, that doesn’t automatically make her a hero. Her personal liberation in having an affair with Sebastian sees her twisting him around her finger slowly but surely. And her treatment of her servant Anna, a demure, pious black woman who hardly says a word, shows what Katherine herself does when she was power over someone else. It’s her response to being controlled, her dedication to having her cake and eating it too, that makes Lady Macbeth so uncomprimising and interesting. Everyone is made miserable by this dogmatic, patriarchal world, so Katherine is out to get hers by any means necessary. She stands as an example of how being a good woman character doesn’t require being a good woman, her complexity is the film’s greatest strength and a testament to Pugh’s performance and Birch’s writing.
Pugh isn’t the only relatively unknown actor who knocks it out of the park in their first major role. Naomi Ackie and Cosmo Jarvis as Anna and Sebastian are similarly impressive at early stages of their careers. Ackie is sympathetic as the handmaid mistreated by everybody, but as a judgementally religious woman, she gives the character just enough edge to keep her from being just a figure of pity. Jarvis is as loutish as the “sexy stable boy” type requires him to be, but taps into the weakness and naievty that so often makes men act loutish.
Lady Macbeth is the kind of film that lingers long after it’s been seen, asking uncomfortable questions about sex, race and class in a stark manner that’s hard to ignore. Grimly gorgeous visually with tight storytelling, it sets its players up expertly and spins them out of control, building to some of the most intense, literally dreadful scenes since last year’s The Witch (with some overlapping subject matter to boot). Wicked and chilling, it’s the most fun you’ll have being miserable at the cinema this year.(4.5 / 5)