Lady Macbeth

 

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A debut feature of distinction that calls for a warm welcome and detailed comment.

 
Lady Macbeth

Florence Pugh

 

It could be said that this deeply impressive new British film comes under false colours since its title   suggests an adaptation of Shakespeare or at the very least a variation on his play. In fact, although set in the north of England in the 19th century, this piece derives from the Russian novella Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk written by Nikolai Leskov in 1865 and later turned into an opera by Shostakovich. As such it is not entirely new to cinema since in 1962 the great Polish director Andrzej Wajda filmed a version of it under the title A Siberian Lady Macbeth. But, while this new treatment written by the playwright Alice Birch and directed in his feature debut by William Oldroyd, jettisons the dark denouement that featured in Leskov and in the opera, it is essentially faithful to the original plot.

 

As a film this triumphs twice over. First, there's the fact that although Oldroyd is an established stage director, his work on Lady Macbeth reveals the mastery of a born filmmaker. This is immediately recognisable from the care taken with the soundtrack and from the impact created by starting with a close-up. The latter is of the central figure, Katherine (Florence Pugh), who will become the character whose ruthlessness invites a comparison with Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth. That's so even though we initially see her as a victim of 19th century patriarchal society. She is brutally imposed upon by her husband, Alexander (Paul Hilton) and by the man who rules their home, Alexander's father Boris (Christopher Fairbank), a mine owner.

 

Shot in colour and 'Scope by Ari Wegner, the film is settled and precise in its portrayal of the house which from the outset seems to imprison Katherine who, when left alone there following an explosion at the colliery, will seek release from her impotent but controlling husband. This she does by succumbing willingly to a man, a stable hand named Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), whose own form of brutality is combined with a powerful sexual attraction. Their sexual rapport unleashes all of the sensuality in Katherine that she had been unable to express in her marriage and, believing that her husband will not return, she sees Boris as the one person standing in her way if she is to make a new life for herself.

 

This makes for a powerful dramatic situation not without echoes of other works. Katherine's lust for a servant prompts thoughts of D.H. Lawrence and Lady Chatterley's Lover while the rural setting and the fact that Jarvis's face on occasion makes one think of Laurence Olivier calls up memories of Wyler's film of Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights. At the same time one feels that Oldroyd would be at home staging Strindberg's Miss Julie. But, as befits the rather vague Shakespearean parallel, Katherine's story is one that leads on to not one but three killings, a fact that could have caused the film to fall into melodrama. That it doesn't is to Oldroyd's credit and his controlled use of sound plays a part here. Instead of overpowering dramatic music, he opts for a strictly limited score by Dan Jones whenever extra intensity is apt, but mainly he keeps to natural sounds from ticking clocks to the wind behind the title credit. These make their own subtle contribution. Meanwhile, the screenplay carefully avoids any of those off-key elements that can so easily arise when a story originally rooted in one location, such as Russia, is transposed to a very different one, as here where the filming was done in County Durham and Northumberland.

 

If I regard this film as less than a masterpiece, it is due to what seem to me to be the limitations of the material (others may not agree). I don't know the Leskov original, but I have seen the opera and it is generally agreed that despite her evil actions Shostakovich found in his Lady Macbeth figure somebody whose situation drew his pity and even his sympathy. Oldroyd certainly makes us deeply aware of what a patriarchal society is inflicting on Katherine even if he is vague about what brought her to her situation as Alexander's wife (there is only a mention rather late on about Boris having acquired her with the land). Her victimisation and humiliation are strongly felt, but that hardly justifies the lengths to which she will go and here the sense of tragedy that could arise if she in some way justified one's sympathy is lost. In the opera the tone is different because the work ranges more widely incorporating satirical elements at the expense of the corrupt authorities. In a world in which the police and the church are portrayed in this way the central condemnation is of the state and the exaggerated tone of that rather than undermining the tragic element helps us to feel some sympathy for a woman caught up in this unfair and immoral world which, although depicted in larger than life non-naturalistic terms, speaks a truth that we recognise. In an evil state, one woman's crimes weigh less heavily.

 

Without these extra layers, the tale can seem more limited in purpose and to offer what is essentially a personal drama that seeks a sense of tragedy but lacks a central figure whose fate carries real tragic weight. However, the cast here is very good and I referred earlier to the film being triumphant twice over. If one triumph undoubtedly belongs to Oldroyd, the other belongs to Florence Pugh. Impressive previously in Carol Morley's The Falling (2014) her performance here as Katherine commands the screen and suggests that she has a major career in front of her.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Florence Pugh, Christopher Fairbank, Cosmo Jarvis, Naomi Ackie, Paul Hilton, Anton Palmer.

 

Dir William Oldroyd, Pro Fodhia Cronin O'Reilly, Screenplay Alice Birch, from the novel by Nikolai Leskov, Ph Ari Wegner, Pro Des Jacqueline Abrahams, Ed Nick Emerson, Music Dan Jones, Costumes Holly Waddington.

 

Creative England/BBC Films/BFI/Oldgarth Media/Sixty Six Pictures/iFeatures-Altitude Film Distribution.
89 mins. UK. 2016. Rel: 28 April 2017. Cert. 15.