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FILM REVIEW: Lady Macbeth

FILM REVIEW: Lady Macbeth

4 May 2017 | Laura Garmeson

Every so often a film comes along that successfully subverts genre. The premise may be familiar, but the execution is strange. Very occasionally, you might find yourself watching a film that makes genre blink. In this recently released English adaptation of a classic nineteenth-century Russian novella by Nikolai Leskov, genre not only blinks but is given a black eye and left for dead by the side of the road. Suffice to say, Lady Macbeth is no ordinary period drama.

Directed by William Oldroyd and starring Florence Pugh (who made her debut in 2014’s haunting The Falling), the plot of Lady Macbeth is, initially at least, not unusual. We find ourselves in rural Northumberland in the 1860s, where a young bride, Katherine, has been recently married off to an older, richer man and taken to live at his estate with only her husband and elderly father-in-law for company. Her husband is often away and she is advised not to leave the confines of the house – ‘You will remain here, indoors, with your prayer book’ – her dull and claustrophobic existence breeding restlessness and contempt for her surroundings. It follows that she embarks upon a passionate affair with one of her husband’s groomsmen, Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), the bloody consequences of which soon start to spiral out of control.


 
As the title suggests, murder runs like a major artery through this film. The borders between lust and obsession rapidly turn morbid: Katherine tells her lover not to kiss her so chastely because ‘it’s husbands and wives that kiss like that,’ then declares, ‘I’d rather stop you breathing than have you doubt how I feel.’ There is a sort of constant brutality to many of the characters’ words and actions, and the violence is frequently mundane. The film presents a starkly physical world; one which is concerned with the weakness of flesh and blood. Visually, the film is remarkably stripped-down and sparse, unusually for a period drama where opulent set pieces are the norm. The sound design is equally minimalist: the occasional eerie wash of noise is unnerving precisely because there is so little music. It is quickly apparent that this dark take on the Victorian household drama is a far cry from the world of bonnets and country dances beloved of typical period adaptations – and all the better for it.


 
The film is adapted from Leskov’s novella, The Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, but it is arguably a more complex beast than the book and adds various layers to the original text. For one thing, the question of race is one that is keenly highlighted in the film and lends nuance to familiar tropes. This is particularly the case in the relationship between Katherine, a white woman of privilege, and her black maid Anna (a superb performance and film debut from Naomi Ackie). Scenes with Anna pouring scalding water over her mistress in the bath and brushing her hair with savage determination tease out interlocking themes of race and class from an age-old story. Both women are victims of their times in different ways; an observation that also feeds into a wider narrative, with Katherine placed at the centre as the ambiguous female protagonist: both victim and villain.


 
Throughout Lady Macbeth, the cinematography remains tightly structured and controlled, making using of an earthy palette of greys, pastels and browns – with the notable exception of the rich Virgin-Mary-blue of Katherine’s dress – and countless static shots manage to infuse many of the scenes with a growing sense of dread. There are also touches of clever symmetry: the opening scene framing Katherine at the altar in her white veil shows her alone, determining this is her story and not her husband’s. Later on the moment is mirrored when Katherine stands in a black veil, like a bride of death, beside an upright open coffin revealing her father-in-law’s corpse. Till death do us part indeed.
 
Ultimately, though, it is the cast that makes this film. Each of the lead actors gives balance, weight, and restraint where necessary in their roles, and can throw caution to the wind where the story calls for it. And Florence Pugh is extraordinary: nothing short of a mesmerizing murderess.

Lady Macbeth is in UK cinemas from April 28.
 

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