If only Pride & Prejudice had this much grit, trepidation and bloodshed…
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
In rural England, 1865, the youthful Katherine (Florence Pugh) lives out a miserable existence in a house with her husband Alexander (Paul Hilton), a man twice her age, and his father Boris (Christopher Fairbank), who scolds her for not doing her marital duties and bearing an heir despite Alexander’s disinterest in her sexually. When the two men leave the estate on business, Katherine is free to roam the grounds, and takes an interest in a roguish worker named Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis). A few deliberate encounters later, the two begin an affair and Katherine is finally happy – until the return of the malicious men of her life. Unwilling to return to her pointless squalor, Katherine uses any means necessary to protect her new life.
For the uninitiated, Lady Macbeth is not in fact a feminine twist on Shakespeare’s tragedy (though the title is drawn from the similarly bloodthirsty protagonist of Macbeth), but based on the 1865 Russian novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District by Nikolai Leskov. William Oldroyd – yet another impressive debut director, graduating from theatre productions – updates the story for a post-Game of Thrones world, dialling down the romantic aspect and drenching it in confronting sex and violence.
Oldroyd immediately makes his style of filmmaking clear-cut; adhering to realism and letting his imagery or actors’ expressions do the talking, keeping things taught, well-paced and to the point. There’s a definite unease that lingers over everything that unfolds, from Katherine’s initial unholy treatment as a subhuman object, to the radical sexual romps with Sebastian, at which time anyone could simply waltz in and discover them.
The house maid Anna (Naomi Ackie) causes anxiety every time she’s on screen; she knows about the affair and is clearly conflicted by her loyalty to Katherine and the fear of what could happen to her as an accomplice. It’s doubly distressing when she’s so startled by the chaos around her she becomes mute.
21-year-old Florence Pugh hands in her star-making performance, capable of portraying a great range of emotion through a face she’s forced to keep straight most of the time. Whether being abused or plotting her next sinister deed, she maintains a confidently unchanging façade that tells those around her that nothing is wrong, and tells us exactly what is really going on; it’s an outstanding duality.
It’s a bit of a letdown then, that her character gradually becomes a tad one-note. Her eventual shift into taking control and becoming the cold, unsympathetic master of her own destiny is well handled, but things become a little predictable. When someone gets in her way, you already know that she’s planning to off them. When she does it’s unsettling, and soon it’s hard not to commiserate more with her victims and unwitting accomplices than Katherine herself.
Still, Lady Macbeth engages, shocks and entertains, and has an energy coursing through it that feels rare for a period piece, giving it a distinguishing modernist feel. An unexpected approach to a conventional old tale combined with some terrific acting and production work makes Oldroyd’s darkly atmospheric debut a gritty gem worth seeking out.
Lady Macbeth is available in Australian cinemas from June 29
Image courtesy of Sharmill Films