Directed by William Oldroyd
Starring Florence Pugh, Christopher Fairbank, Cosmo Jarvis
Based on the Nikolia Leskov’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (because nothing says upbeat like a Russian 19th century novelist taking on a Shakespearean tragedy) Lady Macbeth transfers the setting to the north of England, while keeping the period, plot, and themes intact. The result is an intense costume drama, stripped of the theatrics so commonly associated with the genre, but given power by its terse story-telling and brilliant central performance.
Marriage for Katherine (Florence Pugh) has led to little more than imprisonment. Her husband (Paul Hilton) obviously does not love her, her father-in-law (Christopher Fairbank) dictates every aspect of the house, and she is expected to do nothing but to be another adornment for the manor and eventually produce heirs. Yet this is not Katherine’s way, and as she begins to realise what power she does wield in this setting, she begins to push back. As she does the results become increasingly tragic, but it also strengthens Katherine’s resolve.
There is an immaculate eye here. Each shot is as carefully composed as a painting, making for a gorgeous looking film. The detail is exquisite, demonstrating the care in production in both design and execution. The aesthetics are clear and uncluttered, sparse in many ways, but point to a richness and a quality.
This is more than just a design decision, it weaves into the very fabric of the film itself. This precise eye, this careful planning, allows for an immense economy of style in the story-telling. There is not a wasted shot or scene, as Oldroyd is able to define in a few seconds everything that is required in a sequence. Hence Lady Macbeth is never mired down, but still allows the characters to breath and develop. It is an ink sketch, reliant on a few deliberate strokes to convey meaning, and stunning in its simplicity and beauty.
Although much of the credit must go to Oldroyd’s direction, it is hard to ignore Pugh’s stunning performance. There is a naturalism about her, a modern approach, that although bound by the forms of the period in speech and dress, makes her a believable human being, rather than a historical caricature. She imbues the character with an energy and spirit, that is in danger of being drained from her in the early sequences, as the life is crushed out of her by the tyranny of her marriage. Hence although the audience is made accomplice to her actions, as we understand her initial motivations, and are aghast as they spiral out of control, as each reaction leads to an ever more monstrous escalation.
A period piece that uses its setting to great effect. Beautifully composed, there is not a wasted scene here, as Lady Macbeth effectively tells its tragic tale of family politics.