Director: William Oldroyd
Screenwriter: Alice Birch (screenplay), Nikolai Leskov (novel).
Runtime: 89 mins
Australian release date: 29 June 2017
Previewed at: The Reel Room, Sydney, on 21 June 2017.
In his adaptation of Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 novella, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, British theatre director William Oldroyd has created an intense depiction of the Russian author’s dark examination of the mysterious ways of passion. Coincidentally, in what appears to be a cycle of films dealing with the plight of women in the 19th century, Lady Macbeth is akin to recent titles My Cousin Rachel, A Quiet Passion, and soon-to-be released The Beguiled. A conspiracy of crinolines?
Oldroyd’s scriptwriter Alice Birch has transposed the action from Russia to Northumberland but maintained the time period of the book. Lady Macbeth opens with a close-up on the back of a veiled head which, when turned, exposes the face of 17-year-old Katherine (Florence Pugh), looking simultaneously both defiant and resigned. We soon discover that she has been forced into marriage, sold along with a “useless” piece of land to local landowner Alexander (Paul Hilton), who treats her with utter contempt. In one of the more confronting scenes, he orders her to strip naked and turn to a wall, while he pursues his own 'self-managed' gratification. Thus, the tone of their ‘relationship’ is established. The other occupants of the large, creaky wooden mansion are a black maid, Anna (Naomi Ackie), who seems to resent her mistress, and a vile, controlling father -in-law, Boris (Christopher Fairbank), who treats Katherine as if she’s mud gathered on the sole of his boots. Mind you, he treats everyone else that way too. When both Alexander and Boris depart on business, Katherine is left to her own devices, free to explore her surroundings. This leads her to meet one of Alexander’s employees, the mixed-race labourer, Sebastian (singer/songwriter Cosmo Jarvis), a very rough-diamond, with whom she’s soon having a passionate amorous affair. Obviously this is a situation that can’t be allowed to stand.
Lady Macbeth is an extremely confronting work. Aussie cinematographer Ari Wegner’s camera remains largely static, enhancing the suffocating and repressive environment in which Katherine is trapped. Her lens beautifully frames the action, providing a setting for the subjects, in much the same way a still photograph would. The tension is palpable and as the drama unfolds it becomes increasingly frenzied. At times it’s difficult to comprehend people’s motivations because we’re given so few details of the protagonists’ back-stories but the film is nonetheless powerful. Oldroyd’s gothic feature début is brilliant and the cast, without exception, is excellent, particularly Florence Pugh. She’s bewitching as she morphs from martyr to monster.