William Oldroyd, “Lady Macbeth” (2016)
Adapted from Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 novel “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District”, this character study investigates how an apparently demure young woman becomes a psychopath in a context where differences of class and race, rigid social expectations of women, and repressed emotions and desires intersect. Katherine (Florence Pugh) is sold by her family into a loveless and barren marriage to Alexander (Paul Hilton), a man far older than herself. She and Alexander go to live at his father Boris’s country estate in Scotland where the old crotchety fellow forces Katherine to wait up for her husband at all hours regardless of her own needs and forbids her from leaving the house. Boris (Christopher Fairbank) condemns Katherine for being childless even though her husband is so sexually repressed that all he can do is masturbate while looking at the back of her naked body. Katherine is forced to spend her days being bored and sleeping long days which leaves her tired.
Unexpectedly an accident occurs on the estate, forcing Boris and Alexander to leave the house (never fully seen from the outside) which means for the first time Katherine is in charge. She discovers the maid Anna (Naomi Ackie) being beaten by the farmhands and is attracted to the new groom Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis). Before long, Katherine and Sebastian have begun an affair and Katherine’s new-found lust and longing for Sebastian leads her onto a dark and disturbing path of lies and murder: first, Boris is despatched with poison and then Alexander is bludgeoned to death. Later, a woman and a child claiming to be Alexander’s legitimate heirs – the child supposedly being a result of an affair the woman had with Alexander – arrive and settle in the house. The child’s presence unsettles Sebastian and he forces Katherine to choose between him and the boy. Katherine’s decision and subsequent actions, and Sebastian’s remorse at the role he plays bring the pair into conflict with each other and with the wider society, with tragic consequences for both.
Nearly all the action takes place in the country estate house, the bare furnishings of which emphasise the bleak and oppressive isolation that surrounds Katherine, Sebastian and Anna. Boris and Alexander may go early on but their baleful influence survives in Katherine’s misuse of her freedom and power as one murder leads to another and another. The lies and subterfuges pile up as well until an innocent person is taken away along with a murderer, both presumably to be hanged by police. Katherine finally obtains absolute freedom and power but at the cost of cutting herself from human society forever; how she will survive on her own is anyone’s guess.
For all her youth, Pugh delivers an unexpectedly powerful performance as the put-upon victim who becomes cruel and ruthless in order to free herself from the control of the men who rule her. The message one might take away from Katherine’s actions is a depressing one: to survive in a bleak and pitiless world where violence is always simmering under a placid surface, one needs to be equally selfish, brutal and amoral. Viewers are confronted with the choice of either cheering Pugh on as she upends a hierarchy based on oppressing women and the peasant classes, or condemning her for her crimes and blatant lies that will send an innocent woman to her death. The rest of the cast basically revolves around Pugh and their performances are average to good though Ackie deserves mention as the unfortunate maid who loses her voice after Boris and Alexander are killed.
Oldroyd’s direction emphasises ambience, mood and plot with many scenes lacking dialogue: the result is an almost Gothic film of people forced to make choices and confront the consequences of these choices in a harsh and unforgiving environment. Despite its short length, the film does seem rather long perhaps due to the plot’s predictable nature and the film’s minimalist style which extends to the plot itself in its second half. At this point also the plot changes significantly from the novel’s original plot (in which Katherine was convicted and imprisoned) to stress Katherine’s growing freedom and power, even as she is increasingly ostracised by the wider community. The cinematography is very good with scenes framed as though they are paintings.
The film is interesting as a study of how people are forced to cope under pressure from unenviable forces of bullying and isolation, but may not bear up under even a few repeat views.