LADY MACBETH (UK/16/89mins)
Directed by William Oldroyd. Starring Florence Pugh, Christopher Fairbank, Cosmo Jarvis, Bill Fellows, Naomi Ackle
THE PLOT: Katherine (Florence Pugh) is sold into marriage with Alexander (Paul Hilton), a caustic and rough middle-aged man who is unable to consummate their marriage. When Alexander and his father are both called away from the house, Katherine at first roams the halls like a ghost in crinolines, but soon begins an affair with a farm hand, an affair that has far reaching consequences.
THE VERDICT: Based on Nikolai Leskov’s 19th century novel Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk, and adapted for the screen and anglicised by writer Alice Birch, Lady Macbeth showcases the shocking and beautiful talents of Florence Pugh, while giving weight to the old notion that “it’s grim up North”.
Florence Pugh is front and centre in ‘Lady Macbeth’, and easily carries her first leading role, making Katherine fascinating, horrifying and complicated; no matter how much the camera gazes at her, Katherine’s motivations are almost never completely clear, and this is what makes her such a vibrant character. The rest of the cast features Christopher Fairbank, Cosmo Jarvis, Bill Fellows, and Naomi Ackle in a wonderful turn as Anna, Katherine’s maid and main antagonist.
Alice Birch’s screenplay keeps the dialogue of the film caustic and violent, and although ‘Lady Macbeth’ screams out for a moment of tenderness, these are few and far between, and often marred with violence. Katherine is a complicated character, well written as to be inscrutable through much of the film, and to make the rest of the characters seem weak and meek by comparison to her. Anna is a great balance to Katherine, and it is through her eyes that we see the moral quandries that she is placed in, and Sebastian goes from being violent to frightened in the face of the passions of his lover, Katherine.
Director William Oldroyd allows the film to unfold in front of the camera; never shying away from a silent moment, or from showing Katherine as an intruder in the home she has been forced to move to. There are gentle shifts in Katherine’s character throughout the first half of the film that Oldroyd allows to unfold on screen, but it is not until the finale that we learn the depths of Katherine’s ruthlessness, and the fact that her surroundings – or perhaps the treatment of her throughout her life – have changed the way she views life.
In all, ‘Lady Macbeth’ is a dark, grim and often challenging film to endure, but Florence Pugh makes Katherine a fascinating, terrifying character who it is hard to resist. The relentless darkness, however, sometimes becomes intrusive and challenging.
Review by Brogen Hayes

  • filmbuff2011

    Lady Macbeth is a break-out film in many respects, both for its director William Oldroyd and Florence Pugh, who plays the title character. It’s not connected to the William Shakespeare play, but it plays on similar themes that come from Russian author Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 novella Lady Macbeth Of Mtensk.

    Katherine (Pugh) is a young woman in 19th Century England who is sold off with a piece of land to middle-aged landowner Alexander (Paul Hilton). Alexander’s father Boris (Christopher Fairbank) lives in the house as well, along with servant Anna (Naomi Ackie). The marriage between Katherine and Alexander is not a happy one though. It’s loveless and passionless, with Katherine expected to play the part of a dutiful wife and nothing more. She’s kept firmly in her box by both Alexander and Boris. But when Alexander leaves the house for a period, she catches the eye of rough and ready groomsman Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis). They begin an intense affair, which results in Katherine’s liberation from the shackles of her dull marriage. Not for long though…

    In adapting the story for the screen, writer Alice Birch plays within the societal confines of the period setting, but also gives it a more modern sensibility. Katherine is dutiful and obedient at first, knowing the part that she has to play in the house and in this empty marriage. There’s a hint early on that she has a youthful curiosity and that this is one bird who was never meant to be caged or boxed in. As the story progresses, we sympathise with her predicament but with a note of caution. Katherine starts out as young and innocent, but soon becomes worldly and vindictive. When too much pressure is applied, she snaps and starts down a slope that can only end in tragedy.

    That transformation is very well handled by Pugh. Having played a mischievious fainting schoolgirl in The Falling opposite Maisie Williams, one can imagine that Oldroyd saw similar qualities in Pugh that she could latch on to. It’s a tightly-wound performance, but one that uncoils in a very controlled and sophisticated manner. At all times, we’re aware that Katherine knows what’s happening and has an agenda. The consequences of her actions only embolden her. Oldroyd’s firm direction is quiet, measured and focused – right through to the closing shot as the story comes full circle and Katherine earns her title. He even slips in an undertone of racial tensions as well, involving Anna. Lady Macbeth is never quite what you expect it to be – and is all the better for it. The female of the species is certainly deadlier than the male. ****

  • emerb

    Confusingly, “Lady Macbeth” has nothing do to with Shakespeare. The script has been adapted by Alice Birch from a Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 novel “Lady Macbeth Of The Mtsensk District”. This period drama is British theatre director William Oldroyd’s debut feature and he has taken the action from Russia to 19th century Victorian England where newcomer Florence Pugh plays Katherine, a young woman whose father has married her off to a rich miner’s son. Humiliatingly, she is merely part of a two-for-one deal, thrown in with a plot of land and to make matters even worse, her husband (Paul Hilton) is a horrific, impotent sadist and a brute of a man with no interest in her whatsoever. Katherine begins the movie as an object of our sympathy but as events progress, she becomes ever more cunning, devious and violent and we begin to wonder how we were ever charmed into taking her side in the first place.

    As the story begins, young Katherine is stuck in a marriage with the heir to an industrial fortune who is many years older than her. It is a loveless marriage and she is considered as nothing more than a piece of property. He is cold and controlling and takes extended trips outside the area, leaving Katherine alone and bored in their remote County Durham estate where we can sense her growing isolation and unhappiness. Her authoritarian father in law (the superbly sadistic and scary Christopher Fairbank) belittles her and constantly reminds her of her place in the house and her duties as a wife.

    Katherine craves excitement and so it is during one particular absence of her husband when she begins an erotic romance with grimy farmhand Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis).As the love affair develops, the couple soon start to enjoy intensely depicted passionate interludes together with increasing recklessness. Meanwhile, her poor servant Anna (newcomer Naomi Ackie) watches her take control while fearing the inevitable problems that await the household when the relationship is discovered. As the affair progresses, tongues start to wag but rather than give each other up, we see Katherine’s rebellious streak emerge which can only lead to trouble for anybody who chooses to stand in her way. She resorts to drastic measures to secure the relationship and protect her new found freedom. Even the object of her lust grows increasingly intimidated by her
    social climbing tactics. It is not long before both innocent and guilty are to suffer as her murderous rage engulfs all those around her.

    Much of the power of this film stems from 19 year old Florence Pugh who is a complete revelation here. Playing her first lead after a handful of minor screen credits, it’s clear she has star quality and is surely destined for great things. She gives us a remarkably confident, arresting performance and easily holds her own
    opposite some more experienced stage veterans. In particular, I was impressed
    by her stage-drunk scenes which were completely authentic and credible. Her Katherine doesn’t so much evolve as a character over the course of the film, but instead reveals ever deeper depths of evil as she transforms from a rather coy Victorian bride to a self-made “queen” who has resorted to murder to unleash the full extent of her fury.

    “Lady Macbeth” is an intelligent and powerfully austere gothic melodrama which may appear to be only a small debut feature but in fact, it has far reaching points to make on a wide range of issues. It not only shows us the brutal treatment of an innocent young woman but also covers disturbing issues of race, gender and class in British history. For example, the depiction of the abuse of a black maid and also the casting of black or mixed-race actors in the main peasant roles. This may go unmentioned by the characters but clearly speaks to contemporary racial tensions and shows up toxic class divisions. Director Oldroyd has crafted a striking debut feature with a truly an extraordinary film, captivating, shocking and superbly acted and executed at all times. The gothic allure really appealed to me and despite my reservations on hearing the title, there is nothing theatrical or stiff about this movie. With no score, no frills and sparse storytelling, there is nonetheless a constant atmospheric dread as we wait to see how far the formidable Katherine will go in the pursuit of her dominance. I can see this film luring a fairly wide audience, thanks to the excellent ensemble cast, the seductive mix of sex, murder, feminism and of course the star turn from the lead character. Highly recommended.