Cloak and dagger infidelity, flagrantly adulterous misdemeanours and scant regard for the outcome make Lady Macbeth a beguiling experience. Martin Carr takes a closer look…
Windswept scrubland, flesh pressing flesh and austere isolation combine to convey the buttoned down oppression of this caustic costume drama. Pregnant pauses and animalistic coupling serve as literal release in a film verging on art house whilst keeping one eye on the mainstream. Feeling more like a sequence of events witnessed from a distance, Lady Macbeth is at once supremely voyeuristic, intimately complicit yet intentionally aloof.
Central to this is Florence Pugh’s coldly calculating Venus flytrap of a temptress, who morphs from dutiful young lady to venomous female vengeance radiantly dangerous in repose. Cosmo Jarvis’s Sebastian and Naomi Ackie’s Anna are no match for this masterful manipulator, both drawn in by sympathy and lust then disillusioned and lured beyond help. First time film director William Oldroyd draws on his theatrical experience to exploit a single location with guile, making their environment both simultaneously light yet cloying and self-destructive.
Creaking floorboards, stilted conversations and a mounting sense of powder keg tensions come out through female objectification, dinner table diatribes and moments of savage retribution. Writer Alice Birch has adapted Nikolai Leskov’s story to create both a feminist icon and serial killer period piece concealed beneath nineteenth century concerns. Traded with an undisclosed amount of land, Katherine is treated no better than property and one notch lower than livestock. Her duty as wife to a disinterested husband and figurehead to a household turns repression to fear, fear to infuriation and infuriation into coldly calculating rage.
She takes the humiliation of a man whom she neither knows nor loves and begins clawing back what has been taken. Cloak and dagger infidelity, flagrantly adulterous misdemeanours and scant regard for the outcome make this a beguiling experience. It may be isolated country houses, heaving bodices and stolen glances but this is no Merchant Ivory pastiche. Murderous intent runs rampant beneath the alluring façade of eloquent silence Katherine cultivates. Blunt and unflinching, self-serving and solicitous, those who choose to cross her are buried deep or cast aside. More contemporary in retrospect, Lady Macbeth might be clad in period trappings but the beating heart of gender politics and class concerns bleed through the fabric.
Oldroyd, Pugh, Jarvis and Ackie collaborated during an extensive rehearsal period in order that these characters grow organically off the page. Fairbanks and Hilton were also privy to this process and from it developed an intimacy and trust which comes through in the riveting set up, delivery and denouement. Stark imagery, silent moments of manipulative savagery and shattering remorse turn Lady Macbeth into a chilling experience. Never has a film of mood, manners and polite congeniality been quite so eviscerating or flagrantly self-satisfied in the final moments.
Written by Martin Carr
Directed by: William Oldroyd
Written by: Alice Birch
Starring: Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis, Paul Hilton
Released: 2016 / Genre: Drama
Country: UK / IMDB
Lady Macbeth was released on August 21 on DVD, Blu-ray and On Demand.