Lady Macbeth is a remarkable film – and not just because of the stunning central performance by Florence Pugh (previously seen by us in Carole Morley’s The Falling (2014). Fortunately, I’d seen enough very positive comments from festivals to be clear that this wasn’t a Shakespeare text of any kind, otherwise I might have avoided it. I do still wonder at the wisdom of using the title but the strong box office figures suggest that it works. The film is an adaptation of the Russian novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District by Nikolai Leskov, first published in 1865. The reference to Shakespeare’s character is simply because Katherine (Florence Pugh) is a woman who murders men who threaten her position and she does so by involving other (reluctant/submissive) partners. As far as I can see (from Wikipedia’s outline of the novella), the script by Alice Birch for the film adaptation deals with the first two-thirds of the story. Apart from changing the setting from Western Russia to the North of England (Durham/Northumberland), the details are kept more or less intact (including the names of the characters and the mid-Victorian period).
Katherine is a woman bought for marriage (along with a small piece of land of poor quality). She is a young woman, expected to produce an heir for her older husband Alexander and treated as little more than a paid employee by her father-in-law. In turn she is the mistress of Anna, her maid, and the other servants in the country house. When both her husband and her father-in-law are away on business (her husband has trouble at the mine), Katherine seizes the opportunity to leave the house and walk on the moors and to develop a sexual relationship with the new groom Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis). Things escalate from there.
This is a low-budget film relying mainly on public funding (Creative England, BFI, BBC) but the quality control is high. Filmed at Lambton Castle and in what looks like the North Pennines, director William Oldroyd and DoP Ari Wegner present a harsh but beautiful landscape and an austere house – lacking the rich décor of many similar houses in conventional British costume dramas. The presentation of Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights comes to mind, but Oldroyd (a theatre director working on his first feature film) presents his version of the landscape in CinemaScope rather than Academy ratio. There is another link to Arnold’s film in the casting of BAME actors playing Anna (Naomi Ackie) and later in the narrative Alexander’s ‘ward’, a young boy, and Agnes his grandmother (Golda Rosheuvel). Sebastian too has dark skin. Oldroyd and Wegner make very good use of just four principal locations – house interiors, the outbuildings and the woods and moorland around the house. I’m grateful to Stephen Morgan for his link to the work of Vilhelm Hammershøi, the Danish painter I remember writing about in relation to Terence Davies’ Sunset Song. His interiors, though 40 years later seem to project the same austerity and cold tone.
I once had a foolish view that theatre directors might not have the visual sense of ‘real’ film directors. That was until I realised that many of my favourite directors actually came from theatre backgrounds (Sirk, Ophüls, Nick Ray etc.). William Oldroyd proves my original position wrong in spades. It may be that his cinematographer Ari Wegner composed and lit the shots, but Oldroyd certainly knows how to use his narrative space and how to place and move his actors. This film has a lot going for it and it’s a feast for the eyes. It may not offer much in terms of plot or sociological commentary but it says a great deal about oppression, boredom and lust and about a sense of foreboding. It also shows that it’s possible to bring 19th century life to the screen in modern and vibrant ways – if only more literary adaptations of costume dramas were as effective. I especially enjoyed Black actors offering strong Geordie/North Eastern accents. There is a rather interesting cat too. Amazingly Lady Macbeth made No 11 in the UK chart on its opening – audiences are discerning and can be trusted. Following The Handmaiden, this is another gorgeous adaptation that is sexy but also brutal. I don’t think those corsets are quite strong enough to restrain Ms Pugh. If you get the chance, go see it – and remember the name Florence Pugh!