The figure of Lady Macbeth, one of Shakespeare's most complex characters, looms heavy over literature, not just from 'Macbeth', the classic play that spawned her, but in what she represents - a powerful woman driven by ambition and self-preservation against the inadequacies and expectations of men. There are few archetypes as fascinating or as intoxicating as her, hence why her presence extends past the play and into other works of literature. It is just such a work that director William Oldroyd turns to for 'Lady Macbeth', his startling debut feature that makes a strong statement of aesthetic intent, even if it doesn't make such a strong thematic one.
Adapted from the 1865 Russian novella 'Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District' by Nikolai Leskov, the film relocates the setting to rural England and follows Katherine (Florence Pugh), a spirited young woman suffocating in a loveless marriage, where she its expected to play subservient to her husband and father-in-law. When business takes both of them away, she begins an affair with farmhand Sebastian (musician and actor Cosmo Jarvis), and when that affair is threatened in any way, she responds in violent defence, regardless of the consequences.
Where most period films would indulge in the doomed romance or the high melodrama, 'Lady Macbeth' circumnavigates all these clichés to become an unexpectedly tense and often exquisite thriller, almost Hitchcockian in its perversity and formal rigour. Alice Birch's screenplay is taught and considered, its careful dialogue bubbling with hidden barbs and violence. It isn't interested in obvious exposition or explanation, but revels in the gaps between the congenial words and expected social graces. What this leaves is ample room for Oldroyd to explore the dark unspoken corners and voluminous silences. 'Lady Macbeth' is a film that takes its time, allowing every puzzle piece to fall when it must, and constructing its narrative through an endless series of gorgeous and unsettling tableaux. The film essentially works as a series of repeated motifs and moments, but the meticulous placing of those moments and their sudden variations as the film progresses sculpts the tremendous sense of tension and menace. Australian cinematographer Ari Wegner (TV's 'The Kettering Incident') practically steals the film, her command of the composition of colour and symmetry leading to breathtaking results. Much of the power of the film lies in the stillest of moments, and Wegner and Oldroyd somehow find a way to make yet another English stately home feel new, immediate and unsettling. It's an extraordinary technical achievement, and elevates the film even when its thematic intentions are unclear.
Katherine is an intensely fascinating and intriguing character, mostly due to the hypnotic performance from Florence Pugh, incredibly beautiful and poised but with the look of a wild, trapped animal burning in her eyes. Katherine is a woman at odds with her surroundings, a woman of the earth trapped in a man-made structure. This metaphor extends through the film, both in her actions and in how Oldroyd presents her, and he and Birch find many ways to move past the period setting and comment on the contemporary treatment and dismissal of women. Her seeking out of an escape seems inevitable, and there's little wonder why she finds herself drawn to the raw masculinity of Sebastian. What he also offers her though, and what Cosmo Jarvis is able to play very well, is a man she can control and take ownership of. As the film progresses, we see Katherine take back the power in her situation and learn how to wield it entirely to her own advantage, almost always at the expense of others. A startling aspect of her is her cruelty and dismissal of others, especially in the way she treats her servant Anna (Naomi Ackie), another young woman out of place but easy enough for Katherine to dominate. This makes Katherine a difficult character to sympathise with, and this becomes problematic in the final act in understanding what the intentions of the film are, but that doesn't make her or the film any less intriguing.
'Lady Macbeth' circumnavigates all these clicées to become an unexpectedly tense and often exquisite thriller, almost Hitchcockian in its perversity and formal rigour.
There's little question that this is a star-making performance for Pugh. Every moment she appears on screen is electric, and the camera is obsessed with her. Her performance is filled with bold and surprising textures, and a palpable sense of dangerous unknown. You watch her on the edge of your seat because you never know what she might do next. She is complemented beautifully by Ackie, who makes Anna the innocent observer to Katherine's cruel self-preservation. As her mistress grows in power, Anna crumbles before our eyes, and Ackie delivers a beautifully textured and heartbreaking performance.
It's ultimately unclear in the end what 'Lady Macbeth' has to say though, even if its cruel ending seems like the logical place for it to go. You're left wondering what final statement it has to say about the treatment of women within the male social construct, and while Katherine's actions are presented without judgement, they are ultimately shocking in their cruelty, and you leave the film a tad unsure or unsatisfied. As a character study though, it's a remarkable piece of work, and perhaps this is what William Oldroyd was intending. It certainly crafts yet another powerful incarnation of this intoxicating and complicated literary figure, especially in the hands of Florence Pugh. It might not be the most satisfying film so far this year, but 'Lady Macbeth' is certainly one of the most haunting and most intriguing.