They say never judge a book by its cover, this is a saying you could easily relate to William Oldroyd‘s Lady Macbeth. An impressive unflinching directorial debut feature of oppression and lust in North East England.
This movie may share the name of one of William Shakespeare’s tragic heroines, this does, however, share guilt and death. This is based on a Russian book, a novella called Lady Macbeth Of The Mtensk District by Nikolai Leskov, which has been one time an opera that was banned by Stalin.
After making an impressive acting debut in Carol Morley’s The Falling (2014), Florence Pugh delivers another star performance as our leading lady.
The movie ships us back to 19th Century, opening on the wedding night of young Katherine(Pugh). She’s barely an adult (some will even say she’s still a child) she’s married to a dour middle-aged man Alexander (Paul Hilton) whom she realises who has no affection for her and never will. This is the start of a joyless marriage and a night that Katherine is forced to stand all night, never allowed to sleep in the same marital bed. She’s left humiliated.
One day she gets a reprise when her ‘husband’ is called away and Katherine relishes that window of freedom despite her despicable ‘father in law’ (played by Christopher Fairbanks) commands her to stay indoors. With only the company of her housemaid Anna (Naomi Ackie) she seizes her chance for liberation. She pursues any chance to rebel and escapes from the boredom and that freedom comes in the shape of young stablemate James (Cosmo Jarvis).
A sexual revolution is born and every minute she could Katherine seduced James, she now knows anything she desires she can get. When Alexander’s father returns, desperation unfolds leading Katherine and James resort to actions to maintain their freedom, even if those actions were unscrupulous.
Lady Macbeth on first impressions has all the traditional tropes of a period drama, but as things develop you realise this movie is offering a lot more. It’s a psychodrama. Many period dramas seem to romanticise the era William Oldroyd has crafted a movie that’s relentless is nature. A cruel harsh world of oppression that sees women as objects, not human and money can buy you anything if you’re a man. We learn early on Katherine’s marriage is not one of love but a business arrangement for a piece of land that Alexander’s father said wasn’t even fit for grazing a cow on.
The house Katherine resides in she feels like a prison to her. From her daily routine, her suffocating corset, sitting in a claustrophobic room, the deafening silence, the isolation, loneliness. The stifling atmosphere is also helped thanks to the sound design. With virtually no musical score, the movie relies on the raw natural sounds of floors creaking, doors opening, shutters opening. Even the sounds of nature give the whole movie a beautiful eerie tone.
Lady Macbeth is a cold, calculated well made movie. Running at only 89 minutes long, you will be easily immersed as Katherine’s life unravels in front of us. The class divisions even racism was as toxic in this century as much as it is today. Despite some of her immoral actions, this will be one movie you will sympathise with leading Femme Fatale. Even if her heart is black as coal.
Drama | UK, 2016 | 28th April 2017 (UK) | Altitude Film | Dir.William Oldroyd | Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis, Naomi Ackie, Paul Hilton, Christopher Fairbanks, Golda Rosheuvel