William Oldroyd’s fierce film debut feels like Victorian noir, a twist on a genre probably invented by Shakespeare in the first place. It could very well open up a dark new avenue in the world of classic literary adaptation hats and ties. his film does a lot with a limited budget. She’s smart, sexy, stern: qualities that are armed by a lethally charismatic lead performance from Florence Pugh as the eponymous, unrepentant killer. she is both sphinx and minx. “You have no idea of the damage you can cause,” her father-in-law stammers, enraged at her. Actually, he’s the one with no idea.
playwright and screenwriter alice birch has adapted nikolai leskov’s 1865 novella lady macbeth of the mtsensk district, inspired of course by shakespeare’s macbeth, and adapted by shostakovich in 1934 as an opera, the work that angered stalin , and by andrzej wajda as a film, siberian lady macbeth, in 1962. oldroyd’s new film version, shot with clarity and verve by cinematographer ari wegner, retains all the subversive sensuality of this story, making changes to the narrative, bringing or rather bringing out themes of abuse, violence, race and class. cleverly, he gives us enigmatic backstory hints that may or may not help explain the sudden change of direction the film takes in its third act, leading to a denouement of toxic wit. and all of it fueled by the sensuality and rage of pugh’s performance.
The film moves the action from Russia to the English northeast of the 19th century. Pugh plays Katherine, a beautiful young woman who has been married to Alexander (Paul Hilton), the ill-tempered and sexually inadequate son of wealthy mine owner Boris (Christopher Fairbank). It is Boris who calls the shots and grimly insists that Katherine be a demure and submissive wife. As for Alexander, his face isn’t even revealed to us until their cataclysmic, unseen wedding night: he’s essentially weak, bullied, and victimized by his monstrous father.
With both men gone for long periods, mutineer Katherine is imprisoned in this cold and austere mansion in the middle of the wasteland. Refusing to be broken in spirit, she retreats first to grim drowsiness, then to drink, then an interest in Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), the sexy and raunchy young farm worker. sebastian is mixed race, and anna, the maid, played with clever subtlety by naomi ackie, is black. their presence together, and their shifting personal loyalties, create complex cross-currents of power with the white ruling class to which katherine’s allegiance is strained. Anna is also almost completely mute, and the film tacitly invites us to wonder about pre-existing conditions this might be a symptom of.
this lady macbeth is reminiscent of pascale ferran’s lady chatterley (2006) and andrea arnold’s wuthering heights (2011), in which paul hilton played mr. earnshaw. there are similar ways in which racial difference becomes visible and becomes a new source of tension. the house itself is a powerful character. we are not given a clear shot of what it looks like from the outside, in the traditional style; we are only aware of its gloomy interior like a prison. you can almost feel the chilling draft as you hear the incessant creak and squeak of floorboards and doors opening and closing, like an empty church. it is a world without comfort, without upholstery, and a world in which movement is easily audible and easy to control. It feels like a vital act of defiance when Sebastian and Katherine have noisy sex in the prissy marital bed, making the frame rattle, vibrate and squeak, causing the wood to splinter.
Like Katherine, Pugh has the overweening ambition of Shakespeare’s character (a single line, “it’s done,” pays homage to the great ancestor), as well as the Flaubertian longing for the passionate woman subjected to the bourgeois tyranny of the wife, as well as modern noir obsession and criminal audacity beginning to take on its own momentum. katherine has cunning and a talent for survival. She starts with Madame Bovary and ends with Mr Ripley. pugh gets so much silly insolence, so deliciously sly contempt in the word “sir”, that she addresses her men with an ax face.
when alexander returns home after his prolonged absence, seething with neurotic rage at his mere carnal presence, he accuses his dissolute wife of looking “fatter”. Actually, it’s more than pugh’s face puck now turning defiant towards him and us in all its serene and carefree wholeness, like a full moon.