Artistically speaking, Lady Macbeth is a lesson in economy. It tells the story of Katherine (Florence Pugh), a young woman sold into marriage to Alexander (Paul Hilton), a puritanical older man who seems to have been compelled to produce an heir by his equally spiteful father, Boris (Christopher Fairbank). The relationship between Katherine and Alexander is completely loveless; the only thing husband and wife have in common is that they have each been forced to marry. When Katherine falls for the roguish groomsmen Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), her life at home takes a bloodthirsty turn.
Alice Birch’s screenplay is based on the novella, Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District, by Nikolai Leskov. The Dostoyevskian story of adultery and deadly ambition is transposed to 19th Century Northumberland and, aside from the omission of a dramatic, violent closing sequence, remains largely faithful to the source text.
The decision to relocate the story gives it the feel of a great English novel. Katherine’s walks across the windswept fields around her home, in addition to the idea of a young lady falling for a man of lower class, recalls Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (although it may only be coincidence that the lead characters in each story are named similarly). There is little melodrama in Alice Birch’s treatment, however. Dialogue is unsentimental and, considering it is partly a romance, refreshingly free of grandiose declarations of love. During the first part of the film, as Katherine adjusts to the boredom of domestic life, speech of any type is noticeably scarce.
It is an austere vision of 19th Century England, completely lacking in warmth or ornament. Everything is stripped to its bones. The sets are plainly but immaculately dressed, in a similar way to those in Jessica Hausner’s Amour Fou (2014), and the soundtrack is notable for its restraint, only making itself heard at certain key points in the story. Even the costumes are modest; plainly cut dresses and black suits predominate, and the crinoline cages and stifling bodices into which Katherine is crammed act as a powerful symbol of the constraints of her surroundings.
This severity is all by design, as it articulates the sorry existence in which Katherine finds herself. It is vital that the audience sympathises with her early on, because as the film progresses she takes increasingly ferocious steps to protect her relationship with Sebastian. The name of Lady Macbeth is not spoken at all in the film, but it becomes clear as Katherine’s violent ambition persists that we are to regard her as a proxy for Shakespeare’s maniacal queen.
This is what makes Lady Macbeth such a challenging film. Katherine’s malice is unthinkable, but the earlier portrayal of her captivity – for she is captive to her husband and his father – makes it hard to detach our sympathy from her. She goes from victim to aggressor and it is those around her that take the reverse path. Sebastian is the one to suffer a mind full of scorpions, but it is the plight of Katherine’s maid, Anna (Naomi Ackie), that is the most heart-breaking of all. In a film full of victims, she is the one who is most undeserving of the cruelty directed at her.
Wonderfully led by Florence Pugh (previously seen in Carol Morley’s The Falling, 2014), Lady Macbeth is a sober, understated story of power’s corrupting influence. It is a period piece unlike any other; the ruffled cuffs and society gatherings that are the traditions of the genre are replaced with illicit passions and murderous desire. Its Shakespearean inspiration may be indirect (despite its title), but the tragedy that affects its characters and the realism of its portrayal are part of a tradition that reaches back into the English history of storytelling.
Country: United Kingdom Language: English Year: 2016 Director: William Oldroyd Writers: Nikolai Leskov (based on the novel by), Alice Birch Starring: Florence Pugh, Christopher Fairbank Runtime: 89 minutes