‘Lady Macbeth’ is a tragic character study loosely based on Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 novella ‘Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District’. Moving the setting to mid-19th century England, this adaptation is a tale rooted in the past but told with boldly modern strokes, and what comes out the other end is a fiercely bleak and powerfully acted descent into the depths of the human psyche.
Katherine (Florence Pugh), a young woman, is wed to an older man, Alexander (Paul Hilton, wonderfully unlikable), in an arranged union. They live in his large family home with his cantankerous father, Boris (Christopher Fairbank, scowling), who scolds Katherine for failing to fulfil her marital duties. Despite this, Alexander shows no physical interest in his wife, and he and Boris spend much of their time away on business. She whiles away her days confined to their spacious estate, with only her furtive maid Anna (Naomi Ackie, excellent) for company.
The editing style evokes a certain contemporary arthouse tradition, where scenes and moments are flashes of a whole life. These moments are not necessarily life-changing or narrative-propelling, but they develop a strong sense of a fleshed-out world inhabited by real people. There’s no start or end to these vignettes, but edges that bleed into the diegesis. The visuals, by cinematographer Ari Wegner, are cool and crisp, stripping any painterly beauty from the astonishing landscapes of Northern England, rendering them with sublime ferocity instead. Other crafts on display, particularly costuming, are equally strong.
The script by Alice Birch moves into gear when Katherine discovers a gang of farmhands abusing Anna and confronts them. The ringleader, Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), is unperturbed by her high status on their estate, and forces his way into her room one night. Although Katherine resists momentarily, they commence upon a wild, passionate romance without any fear of repercussion with all the men away from the home. Only Anna knows, and when she tells Boris of Katherine’s infidelity upon his return, she sets in motion a chain of events that plumb just how far Katherine will go to protect her relationship with Sebastian.
Katherine is a woman out of time. Florence Pugh plays her with a fire that grates against any traditional notion of the subservient 19th century housewife, creating a towering, memorable character whose spiralling acts of manipulation and desperation mirror those of the titular literary icon. Pugh looks like a cross between Haley Lu Richardson and Denise Richards, but she smoulders with an intensity that neither actress has approached. Katherine invites dislike with her predominantly cold treatment of the estate workers, but her rebellion against their stuffy expectations is admirable, demanding is a skillful balancing act between antihero and heroine. Pugh answers this call and more, building a complex psychology and cold ruthlessness beneath her youthful veneer; when she tells Sebastian, ‘I’d rather stop you breathing than have you doubt how I feel’ – your skin will crawl.
The other cast members make for strong foils to Katherine’s constant scene-stealing. In particular Cosmo Jarvis, a British singer-songwriter, who looks one part Aaron Taylor-Johnson, one part Christopher Abbott, and makes his Sebastian an utterly believable wretch caught in Katherine’s web. You see him fall quickly in love with her willingness to see past his lowly station, only to spiral down into her mad depths. Katherine’s journey is one of actively destructive self-assuredness, while Sebastian’s is defined in relation to hers, swept along on her inexorable descent. His tragedy is the greatest the film has to offer.
While its genre flits uncomfortably between period piece, romance and tragedy, ‘Lady Macbeth’ is probably a horrifying character study at its core. There’s no questioning of Katherine’s immorality, just cold observation. It’s by no stretch an entertaining film, but the filmmaking from director William Oldroyd and his excellent above- and below-the-line collaborators is excellent. Take some inspiration from Shakespeare’s own Lady Macbeth, ‘Screw your courage to the sticking place’, and set aside some time for ‘Lady Macbeth’.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Review by the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting