Lady Macbeth

****

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Lady Macbeth
"Just when you think you know this story, Oldroyd and Birch begin to show you that you don't."

Theatre director William Oldroyd makes excellent use of negative space in his feature debut Lady Macbeth - adapted from Nikolai Leskov's Russian novel Lady Macbeth Of The Mtsensk by Alice Birch and set in 1865 - with almost every interior frame suggesting absence. It's appropriate for his central character Katherine (Florence Pugh, absolutely nailing a north-eastern accent), a young woman who has been sold into an empty marriage to the much older Alexander (Paul Hilton).

She moves into his ancestral country pile in the north-east of England, where she also finds herself under close scrutiny from her domineering father-in-law Boris (Christopher Fairbank) and her black maid Anna (Naomi Ackie), who adds to Katherine's confines every day as she wordlessly straps her into her corset.

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The rooms of the house have a similar strait-laced austerity, the sitting room a masterclass in symmetry, where Katherine perches each day - a barely animated still life - trying not to fall asleep. Even the cat has a short-haired Devon Rex look, as though long fur would betrray opulence. The stifling atmosphere sits in sharp contrast to the way cinematographer Ari Wegner captures the autumnal richness of the countryside surrounding the house - made all the more attractive to Katherine by Boris' instistance that she stay indoors contemplating how to be a good wife and mother.

Trouble at the family mine takes the men folk from home while they are away Katherine strikes up an affair with groomsman Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), that quickly grows into an obsession - "I'd rather stop you breathing that have you doubt how I feel," she tells him. Just when you think you know this story, Oldroyd and Birch begin to show you that you don't. It may have an element of the gothic romance of Wuthering Heights or dreamy desires of Catherine Cookson but Katherine's pyschological landscape is much murkier and more Shakespearean than you might imagine.

We, like Sebastian and Anna, can only look on as Katherine's moral framework begins to disjoint and she becomes in blood stepped so far that returning would be as tedious as to go o'er. The tediousness is key, as this is not just a story of patriarchal dominance and the extreme acts that it can provoke but also a sinister interpretation of how the devil might make work for idle hands.

Oldroyd commands the mood, Katherine's crimes seeming even more stark against the bleak environment, with young actresses Pugh and Ackie generating an unspoken tension you could cut with a dagger. Pugh suggests a charming puckishness gradually sliding into the more ruthless woman she becomes while Ackie is, arguably, doing a lot more with less - her character is struck dumb early in the film but she continues to wordlessly convey Anna's wide range of emotion.

The casting of Ackie, Jarvis - and two other characters who appear late in the piece - all of whom are black or of multiple heritage is also a fascinating detail that, while not laboured, raises questions of race in British history, which are all too often whitewashed out of costume dramas. Lady Macbeth will compete at London Film Festival this month and its a stong contender.

Reviewed on: 04 Oct 2016
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A woman sold into a loveless marriage develops a mind for murder after starting an affair.
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Director: William Oldroyd

Writer: Alice Birch, based on the novel by Nikolai Leskov

Starring: Florence Pugh, Christopher Fairbank, Cosmo Jarvis, Naomi Ackie, Paul Hilton, Golda Rosheuvel, Anton Palmer

Year: 2016

Runtime: 89 minutes

Country: UK


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