William Oldroyd’s astoundingly assured debut Lady Macbeth may be devoid of any Shakespearean lineage, but this unconventional Victorian chamber piece is just as scintillating as its Scottish namesake. Shrewdly adapted from Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 Russian novella Lady Macbeth Of The Mtsensk, British playwright and first time screenwriter Alice Birch relocates the stiflingly patriarchal proceedings to a sequestered moor in rural England.
Forced into a loveless marriage with a man twice her age in order to pay off a family debt, Katherine (Florence Pugh) is reluctantly under the domineering keep of her impotent husband (Paul Hilton) and equally acrimonious father-in-law (Christopher Fairbank). Limited to the soulless confines of their stately yet draughty manor, Katherine is practically forbade any semblance of freedom, and the young bride’s daily interactions are restricted to that of her passive and unsympathetic housemaid Anna (Naomi Ackie). Both spouses are heartily dispassionate in consummating their marriage, so this leads Katherine’s bored and wandering eye to cocksure groomsman Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis) and the two unite on a primal and lust-ridden affair. This sexual awakening releases a conniving empowerment that briskly consumes Katherine’s whole ideology.
Witnessing an unstoppable home grown talent at the dawn of their career is somewhat of a rarity and privilege. Florence Pugh’s electric, multi-faceted performance follows her breakout role in Carol Morley’s 2014 British arthouse hit, The Falling. Twisting between vestal purity and mirthless psychotic, Pugh delivers a pristine self-assured character study well beyond her years.
Director William Oldroyd switches his habitual theatre sanctuary (a residency at the Young Vic being just the tip of his CV) for the untested pastures of filmmaking. He shrewdly navigates a surplus of achingly relevant themes alternating from gender, class and race with a sure-footed vision that whisks by at a bracing 89 minutes.
Shot on a micro budget of £500,000 in Northumberland on a 24 day shoot, Lady Macbeth is defined by a tensely austere atmosphere that is framed amongst the ambiguity of mist-covered moors. Costume designer Holly Waddington suffocates the conspiring protagonist both physically and metaphorically in skin-cinching corsets which underlie lavishly restrained frocks, emphasising Katherine’s constrained role both morally and bodily.
Cinematographer Ari Wegner captures the measured gothic turmoil with a lingering voyeurism that falls just on the right side of uncomfortable. Static camerawork and long takes help feed the sense of airlessness that constantly stifles Katherine from unbridling her true emphatic nature. Whilst Lady Macbeth is a minimalist piece in many aspects (from its styling to the fleeting non-diegetic sound score), the impact this mesmeric revenge drama has far outclasses most period dramas due to its sheer originality and abrasiveness. Broodily snaking its way round your thoughts for countless days after, Lady Macbeth is simply unmissable.
Lady Macbeth is in UK cinemas now.