(Lady Macbeth, 2017)
Issues of gender, class, and race become mere secondary components in this violent confrontation of devotion and its limits.
By Katie Ray
William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth is a sexily sinister film adaptation of Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 novella, “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District”; a text that has historically inspired a diverse range of adaptations from opera to ballet. Alice Birch’s thrilling screenplay that re-situates the story within a northern-Victorian Britain successfully maintains the darkness of Leskov’s original narrative, while simultaneously rekindling traditional associations with Shakespeare’s early modern murderess in its dealings with love, death, and the inequalities of British history. The poignancy of reincarnating such a name lies in this film’s achievement of a hypnotic and gripping effect on its audience: despite paving a new direction away from its literary roots, Lady Macbeth is a haunting, resounding success that leaves chills long after leaving the theatre.
The film opens with a young bride, Katherine (an exceptional Florence Pugh), being introduced to marital life by her much older husband (Paul Hilton). He is sadistic, neglectful, and quickly departs with no indication of an immanent return. Longing to wander the moors and find release from the confinement of her new home, Katherine jumps at the opportunity to experience the wild in her husband’s absence, only to quickly tumble into an erotic and passionate relationship with newly-appointed stable-hand, Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis). Ironically bringing a version of the forbidden ‘wild’ into the bedroom, Lady Macbeth immediately champions issues of class, race, and gender as Katherine’s devotion to Sebastian is tested in wake of threats to her social identity. The film’s dramatic contrast between outdoors and indoors, social class, and freedom and restriction, become reminiscent of Angela Arnold’s Wuthering Heights (2011) in aligning blustering winds with sexual and emotional intensity, to the extent that Oldroyd’s film becomes as psychologically gripping as it is visually appealing.
Both Florence Pugh and Naomi Ackie (Anna) offer particularly impressive performances, as their relationship of Lady of the House and Lady’s Maid becomes the ultimate signifier of the extent to which Katherine abandons her sense of propriety; and grasp of sense altogether. While Anna is subjected to endless and harrowing abuse, the friction between the pair does not centralise these themes; rather, the fundamental inequalities residing in all corners of Katherine’s household are left to speak for themselves, and it is Katherine’s decline into immorality that haunts the film’s foreground.
Lady Macbeth demonstrates an exceptional use of facial close-ups and head-on cinematography, which encapsulates the empty, loveless state of the domestic home in both sympathetic and sinister contexts. Alongside a minimalist and unsettling score, Oldroyd constructs a perfect atmosphere for the dark to become darker. The viewer is skilfully isolated into a corner before the film’s narrative tension inflicts its inevitable sourness, leaving it impossible to not be unsettled by the shock of the unstable and violent events that proceed.
As with every film, Lady Macbeth may not be every viewer’s idea of perfect. However, Oldroyd’s meticulous use of silence and slow-burning plot are what fundamentally offer the stylistic and technical greatness of the narrative’s tonal success: Lady Macbeth certainly gets in your head, and your whole body for that matter. It is a strong, direct, and powerful film that questions the limits of rational devotion. Certainly worth investing an hour and a half in a watch.