Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 novella Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk has not only been staged as an opera, a ballet, and adapted as a 1962 Andrzej Wajda film but now acclaimed one-time Young Vic director in residence, William Oldroyd, brings Alice Birch’s screenplay debut to contemporary cinema audiences. Transposing the Russian set story to the 19th century, specifically the rural North-East of England.
This Lady Macbeth tells the story of Katherine (Florence Pugh), sold into marriage to Alexander (Paul Hilton) and forced to live with the older man and his father, Boris (Christopher Fairbank). Her new husband doesn’t touch her, barely speaks to her and expects “his property” to remain indoors at all times. Katherine’s only physical contact is with her near-mute maid Anna (Naomi Ackie).
Gender hierarchy in 19th Century Britain meant that women were deemed second class citizens and treated as commodities and here, Katherine is no different; sold into a loveless marriage alongside a patch of land, initially unable to exercise much control over her body, her voice, even her sleep patterns, in a house that is determined to silence her and keep her quelled. Katherine is easy to empathise with as we see her sitting alone, day after day, fighting to keep her eyes open. She craves the outdoors, the right to breathe and the freedom to do as she pleases. Cinematographer Ari Wegner’s tight framing is oppressive, the tension palpable, as we are invited to witness the daily rituals of a woman; silence broken only by the vicious raking of a hairbrush dragging out knots and tangles of hair or the violent pulls of the restrictive corset cutting off the air supply, crushing lungs with each tug.
When her husband and father-in-law go away on business, her wish for air is granted, however, on one of her strolls, she gets inappropriately handled by farmhand Sebastien (played beautifully by Cosmo Jarvis). When he visits her that night and attempts to force his way into her marital bed there is a struggle before she drags him in. With Sebastian, she can exert control, exude sexuality, seduce and subjugate. While Shakespearean Lady Macbeth was punished for her explicit threat to the patriarchy, Katherine subverts all expectation, and at one point literally laughs in the face of it. She is the epitome of looking like the innocent flower but being the serpent underneath.
Florence Pugh is astonishing in this unsettling tale. Her character’s adultery, defiance and contempt glorious in its transgression. Pugh made a terrific impression in Carol Morley’s The Falling (2015) but this incredible performance is the one which will make her a star. She is ably and brilliantly backed by co-stars Cosmo Jarvis and Naomi Ackie as, pawns to be manipulated, Sebastian and Anna. Their ethnicity is never overtly commented upon, but reflects the detailed, historically accurate, research the filmmakers carried out of the period. Despite their class difference, Anna and Katherine are the same, products of the society they inhabit; subservient and imprisoned.
Oldroyd’s production is without complexity, there’s the voyeuristic static camera, long takes, lingering periods of silence which only add to the suffocating drama and tension and serves this type of simple, albeit subversive, narrative perfectly. The beauty lies in the performances, not one can be faulted, and the stark cinematography and lack of musical cues packs a stifling punch. Its austere and almost severe lack of colour (save for a beautiful peacock blue dress designed by Holly Waddington) indoors is juxtaposed quite beautifully with the warming tones of the exterior shots which are reminiscent of Arnold’s Wuthering Heights (2011) and Campion’s Bright Star (2009).
Tense, beguiling, and suffocating, Lady Macbeth is a compelling adaptation of a Russian novella via Shakespearean literature and depicts a microcosm of a British society of the past. Pugh delivers an outstanding performance – in a superb drama – as a powerful, defiant, adulterous and ambitious woman who owns her autonomy in a time when she was afforded none.