Lady Macbeth ****/*****
Directed by: William Oldroyd.
Written by: Alice Birch based on the book by Nikolai Leskov.
Starring: Florence Pugh (Katherine), Cosmo Jarvis (Sebastian), Paul Hilton (Alexander), Naomi Ackie (Anna), Christopher Fairbank (Boris), Golda Rosheuvel (Agnes), Anton Palmer (Teddy), Rebecca Manley (Mary), Fleur Houdijk (Tessa), Cliff Burnett (Father Peter), David Kirkbride (Edward), Bill Fellows (Dr. Burdon), Nicholas Lumley (Mr. Robertson), Raymond Finn (Mr. Kirkbride), Ian Conningham (Detective Logan).
Set in the 1860s in England, Lady Macbeth has nothing to do with Shakespeare, but is instead a gripping, psychological thriller disguised as a costume drama. It stars Florence Pugh in what should be a star making performance as a woman who we first see as a feminist hero (for her time) but gradually reveals herself to be something much darker than that. You sympathize with her, until you get to a point where you cannot believe you ever sympathized with her. It is a brilliant performance in a movie that is also wonderfully directed by first time feature director William Oldroyd, with beautiful, but cold, cinematography, and sparse, but memorable sound design.
Lady Macbeth wastes no time on setting things up (the film has little use for the type of explanatory sequences most movies feel they need) – as we meet Katherine (Pugh) on her wedding day – after the ceremony is over – when she’s in her new bedroom with her new husbands – Alexander (Paul Hilton) – a middle aged man, and not the sort of guy you imagine a teenager like Katherine would choose for herself. It turns out she was sold to Alexander’s wealthy father – along with some land – and her purpose is clear – give Alexander a legitimate heir. He’d have to do something that he seems incapable of for that to happen however.
Katherine is miserable, and makes little effort to hide that misery from her husband, or his wealthy father Boris (Christopher Fairbank). When Alexander has to leave on business for a while though, Katherine starts “taking the air” – and it’s here that she meets Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis) – who works on the land for Boris and Alexander, and is mixed race. They start a passionate affair – although if they share anything other than lust, we don’t see it. This, of course, sets in motion what happens next.
Lady Macbeth is a film about oppressive, and various kinds of privilege – and how they can be wielded as weapons. As a woman, Katherine has no choice but to do what she’s told – she is her father’s to be sold into marriage if he chooses, and then she belongs to her husband, who can likewise tell her what to do. The fact that she revels is natural – and we immediately feel for her. But then, she starts doing one thing after another of increasing violence, and increasingly hard to justify. No one in the film mentions – out loud – that Sebastian is black – or for that matter that the maid, Anna (Naomi Ackie, delivering a performance almost as brilliant as Pugh’s, and does so nearly silently) is also black – but they don’t need to, they know. The film may well have been inspired by Andrea Arnold’s wonderful version of Wuthering Heights (2011), which cast Heathcliff as a black man, and didn’t so much comment on it either. Lady Macbeth really is about how Katherine goes from oppressed to oppressor.