This is a British version of a Russian novel transposed to Northumberland, the novel a Russian transposition of Shakespeare’s story of Scotland’s well-loved King Macbeth and his over-ambitious wife, the Russian novel written from Lady MacBeth’s point of view, the story set in a rural Russian town. Is that clear?
There’s also a 1962 Polish film by Andrzej Wajda, Sibirska Ledi Magbet – Siberian Lady Macbeth. All in all, Mrs Macbeth hasn’t had a good press, but she makes a fine character study as interesting as her male namesake is a byword for envy and lust for power!
A strong, solid, intelligent period drama about female subordination welcomes two first-time beginners, writer and director, and a break-through role for a powerful, bold young actress called Florence Pugh. Here she’s Katherine, in the novel, Katerina.
Lady Macbeth is Thomas hardy gone wild.
There’s something of Emile Zola’s Thérèse Raquin in the plot, something of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, and a whole lot of Alfred Hitchcock. As with so many well-crafted films issuing from British talent and set in England, you’ll need to seek it out in your nearest art house cinema, although one multi-screen chain is smart enough to see the potential to give it a screening, for it has all the elements of a good thriller.
Nicolia Leskov’s short story Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk was turned into a four-part opera by Shostakovich, but this film holds pretty well rigidly to the plot of Leskov’s novella.
A woman marries a landowner but is soon bored with rural life, an impotent husband, or so she thinks, and being treated as one step higher than a favourite servant. In the book Leskov explores what the Lady Macbeth of Shakespeare’s tragedy might do if she was left on her own to act out her darkest desires and her fantasies.
I’d better warn of spoilers from here on in – reviewing this interpretation makes it impossible to avoid them, but I’ll do my best.
Alice Birch’s minimalist script allows director William Oldroyd to give his ensemble plenty of room to put flesh on bones, which is just as well because there’s plenty of flesh coming off bones as the murders pile up.
Leskov’s story is relocated to a bleak wooded estate in 19th-century Northumberland. (Some reviewers say it’s Somerset. I know a Somerset accent from a Northumberland one.) Instead of a death at the estate owners water mill some distance away as in the novella, Birch has many deaths happen in a coal mine that takes the husband out of the story, and gives freedom to the dark protagonist to do her worst.
The background is England’s industrial revolution. Any minute you expect someone to burst into a room and shout, ‘There trooble down t’mine”, but dialogue is pared to a minimum and avoids cliché. However, there is another innovation.
This is a film about sounds. Sound is heightened everywhere: the swish and glide of a woman’s crinoline gown across a floor; the clip clop of horse hooves on cobbles; the wind through closed shutters; the click-clack of cutlery on china plates, and most of all the heavy breathing of Katherine (Pugh) as she walks long corridors at night to let in her athletic lover.
Oldroyd is devilishly clever using sound to move his drama along and not get lost for ideas on a too modest shooting budget. In fact, there are, I think only a handful of scenes where camera tracks are used to follow people on galloping horses, or driving carts, trees in between, rail tracks being expensive to hire and set up by the day rate. The majority of scenes are shot on a fixed camera position, actor or actors centre stage.
The classic use of cameras, old school, has the desired effect of making the austere interiors seem to close in through cinematographer Ari Wegner’s practised eye. There’s time to smell the dowdiness of brown furniture, over-padded armchairs, hefty table legs covered in drapes and tassels lest the legs shock guests with their feminine nakedness.
Katherine is married to Sebastian, (Paul Hilton) a wimpish chip off the old block, his father, (Christopher Fairbank) a grim, hooked nose, dry old stick, a woman hating boor, who demands a woman stay in her place, and her place is in the home. When Sebastian’s father loses his temper and attacks Katherine with a blow to her face his fate is sealed.
Nobody onscreen pays much attention to Sebastian and Katherine’s increasingly conflicted maid Anna, played almost silently in looks and body behaviour, with little backstory, by Naomi Ackie. There’s a sense of Hegelian Herrschaft und Knechtschaft in Katherine’s treatment of them. Katherine and her errant husband, and then Sebastian treat their slave servants lower than the lowest, lower indeed, than a horse.
And it’s the stable lad played by a bearded Cosmo Jarvis who inhabits the world of muscular beasts who takes the place of Katherine’s husband as soon as he’s out of town on business. To use a colloquial phrase, Katherine likes a bit of rough. He excites her. She uses him for self-gratification. The lowest of the low orders made lower still.
The film belongs to Pugh. She made an unforgettable debut in Carol Morley’s The Falling, and here, with little effort I might add, is remarkable as the variously carnal, ruthless, suffering, pitiable, monstrous anti-heroine. There are lustful couplings everywhere and in every position. I found myself chuckling with delight at some of those moments because they are true to human behaviour. Katherine is going to enjoy life no matter the risks or the consequences.
Naomi Ackie and Cosmo Jarvis are more than able to keep pace, with performances that transition from order to wide-eyed terror. Their characters are as trapped as Pugh’s in a world where not even the clothes you wear allow you to breath.
But the film has an annoying weakness, brought on, I fear, by lack of budget and time. Act Three gallops along at too fast a pace, murder piles upon murder, and the drama loses tension. The greater the body count, the less the grip on the psychological narrative, and the more the story veers to the implausible, though not disastrously so.
There is one scene in which Jarvis’s stable lad has to break down in anguish. He handles that with aplomb. The scene is the crying at the graveside convention, the ‘look at the depth of my talent’ scene every actor hopes their character is given. But the subsequent scene arrives too quickly. We need a longer emotional arc to fully accept Sebastian’s revelation on the road to Damascus.
A lot of critics and reviewers have gone gaga over the film and given it four or even five stars. I’ve explained my reservations. The film doesn’t have the resonance of British writer Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, another story of repressed individuals living in a class ridden English society. That film provoked thought. This one does not, but it does send a chill down your spine.
Nevertheless, there is pleasure in losing £15 for a ticket and a tub of Ben & Jerry to see this latter day version of Lady Macbeth set ‘oop north’.
I think we shall be seeing a lot more of Florence Pugh, but I’ll withhold fulsome praise for Oldroyd and Birch for two reasons. The film is not an original work. It’s a new conception of an old work, the kind of re-imagining each generation does to Shakespeare’s Hamlet. And because I think we need to see how Oldroyd handles sound and camera on his next film. On this one he shows great promise and intelligence.
- Star rating: Three and a half
- Cast: Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis, Naomi Ackie
- Director: William Oldroyd
- Writer: Alice Birch
- Cinematographer: Ari Wegner
- Music: Dan Jones
- Duration: 1 hour, 29 minutes