ALTITUDE FILM DISTRIBUTION (2017)
Director: William Oldroyd
Starring: Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis, Paul Hilton, Naomi Ackie, Christopher Fairbank
“My father bought you, along with a piece of land not fit enough for a cow to graze upon.”
Charming words that ultimately would prove foolish as this Lady is not to be messed with. Based on Nikolai Leskov’s novel Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, William Oldroyd has changed the story up slightly, moved it to 19th century England whilst amending characters and background. Not to the detriment of the story but very much for its benefit.
This is a searing and, at times, bruising adaptation.
Katherine (Pugh) is in a loveless marriage to her (much older) husband Alexander (Hilton), a man who is sexually useless and allows himself to be bullied by his father Boris (Fairbank). Staying at Boris’ country estate, Katherine is expected to remain within the confines of the house and to “do her duty” to her husband – i.e. lay flat and take it. It’s clearly not the life she had imagined, and her eyes display a need to hit back. When Boris and Alexander leave for separate ventures, Katherine finally has the chance to explore the grounds and experience the idea of a free life. With just the mute housemaid Anna (Ackie) for company, she begins to exert control of the estate as her eye is caught by Sebastian (Jarvis) – one of the workers around the house.
Scruffy and roguish, Sebastian is everything Alexander isn’t and immediately the pair spiral into a sexual, claustrophobic relationship – one that is unsubtly denigrated by Anna and the local priest. Unfortunately for Katherine, Boris returns home and word of the affair has reached him. Disgusted, he beats Sebastian and imprisons him in an outhouse. Katherine, however, has her own plans for Boris and anyone who unwisely attempts to stand in her way.
Period drama’s don’t always set the pulses racing or offer a lot for the casual moviegoer, however Lady Macbeth manages to avoid such pitfalls. It’s a period drama for people who don’t like them. Murder, lust, rebellion and deceit are on the menu throughout, and inverts the ideas of the ‘all-white’ class power of the time and the men have found their match in Katherine. Far from a cardboard cut-out snarky lead, the character is a brooding menace whose machinations exist for her selfish interests and one that is given a fascinating arc throughout.
Florence Pugh is scintillating as the seductively sinister Katherine, her threat rising with every scene that passes. Beginning as an almost sympathetic and repressed character, once the shackles are off she grows into a single-minded force – smart and deadly. It’s a brilliantly executed role. Contrary to Pugh’s power performance, Naomi Ackie is deliciously understated as the mute handmaiden who is subjected to humiliation and indignity, racial contempt and left to try and survive the movie in fear. The movie doesn’t explicitly state how and why Anna is mute, but it gives some large hints.
Made on a low-budget, the movie excels in terms of cinematography and mise-en-scène. Mainly utilising the house interior (we are never shown the exterior) and the surrounding woodland and field, the movie manages to create a large-scale feel using minimal resource. The house has a darkness to it, it’s not quite gleaming and upper class, the echoing of every footstep or window opening plays into the isolation and emptiness the movie lays out expertly. There is no musical backdrop to the movie, bar a few brief entries, allowing the viewer to become encapsulated with the characters and allows the ambient sounds to shine through.The sweeping shots of the lush fields have a classic period quality to them, and provide serenity in a movie that bubbles away beneath the surface.
In order to get what she wants, Katherine utilises her veiled cunning and cold-hearted desire and the movie isn’t short on blunt and brutal violence. Obviously ‘action’ isn’t in every scene, however the methods utilised are ruthless and calculating enough to ensure the lingering threat remains. The final ‘dispatch’ is especially horrifying, a classic static long shot captures the subtle intensity and cruel action as it unfolds, and ensures the line from sympathy to callousness is crossed.
For this movie, drop any pretence and distrust of period movies and the entertainment they may or may not bring to you. Brimming with a shadowy seediness, Lady Macbeth is a beautifully shot, stunningly acted and a compellingly cruel gloomy affair with its components combining to make it one of the year’s best movies.
August 24th 2017