DIRECTOR: William Oldroyd
CAST: Florence Pugh, Christopher Fairbank, Cosmo Jarvis, Bill Fellows, Paul Hilton, Naomi Ackie, Ian Conningham, Rebecca Manley, Golda Rosheuvel, Fleur Houdijk, David Kirkbride, Joseph Teague, Cliff Burnett, Alan Billingham, Anton Palmer
RUNNING TIME: 89 mins
BASICALLY…: A young 19th century bride (Pugh), forced to marry an unpleasant middle-aged man (Fairbank), soon falls in love and begins a passionate affair with a stable-hand (Jarvis)…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
This review is of the cut shown at the BFI London Film Festival in October 2016 – as of this review, there is no UK release date yet for this movie.
Although Lady Macbeth has absolutely nothing to do with the classic Shakespeare play featuring that classic character, there are elements of her shady, manipulative nature scattered all throughout theatre director William Oldroyd’s impressive and haunting feature debut, based on Nikolai Leskov’s novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk.
Relocated from Russia in the book to Northern England for the film, we first meet young Katherine (Florence Pugh) as she is being wedded to her wealthy middle-aged suitor Alexander (Paul Hilton), who wants little to nothing to do with her other than to produce an heir – something that he has no intention of doing – and forcing her to stay inside at all times. Bored and sexually frustrated, she soon begins a passionate affair with a young stable-hand named Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis). So far, so Lady Chatterley’s Lover – but it’s not long before the film starts to take a shockingly sinister turn, as Katherine’s femme fatale persona begins to show its true colours, and ends up having an effect on everyone in her path, for better or for worse (mostly worse).
Made for a mere £500,000 as part of a regional funding program partly sponsored by the BFI – presumably hence its native debut at the London Film Festival – the film does a remarkably fine job at looking grander than it cost to make, with the costumes, set design, and beautiful Northumberland backdrops all being exceptionally splendid to look at. Oldroyd uses his theatrical past to also make it seem as boxed in and claustrophobic as possible, making us feel as trapped as our protagonist is in this hell in the countryside. The shots, by cinematographer Ari Wegner, range from documentary-style shaky cam – thankfully not too distractingly shaky, all things considered – to captivating still shots, including a pivotal scene near the end of the film, but like Oldroyd there is something about Wegner’s work here that makes us feel like we’re silent observers while watching a play unfold, not entirely unlike the National Theatre Live broadcasts to cinemas. Writer Alice Birch, also making her film debut with this film, is effective with her adaptation, wisely relocating the action to a slightly more contemporary 19th century England setting, but ensuring that the characters and story originally from Leskov’s novella remain intact for the most part, while also not being afraid to introduce her own elements as well (the ending, from what I hear about the book, is radically different than in the film).
As for Lady Macbeth herself, Florence Pugh is an absolute marvel. Since making her feature debut in last year’s The Falling opposite Maisie Williams, the actress and part-time YouTube singer has been on the cusp of making it big in the world of film acting, and with this film she is bound to be firmly placed on the map at long last. Ferociously sharp with an alluring posture, almost like an alternate universe version of Chloë Grace Moretz, Pugh carries her own against her far more experienced co-stars, including characters actors like Christopher Fairbank as her repugnant father-in-law, and winds up stealing every single scene she’s in, which is handy especially as she’s virtually in every scene of the film. If she doesn’t break out with this film like all the other reviewers are predicting, including this one, then it will be a damn shame.
Credit, too, must also go to actors Cosmo Jarvis, and Naomi Ackie who plays maid Anna who becomes increasingly disturbed by the actions she is witnessing. They, along with Pugh, represent a fresh generation of young actors who hold their own in these challenging roles, and when the film does slowly spiral into a far darker realm they remain compelling and emotionally torturing to watch, in the best possible way.
A remarkable feature for all of its cast and crew to be involved in, Lady Macbeth is a dark and chilling take on the type of English costume drama that, like its tricky protagonist, never succumbs to the norm.
SO, TO SUM UP…
Lady Macbeth is an impressive British costume drama that translates the original text of Russian author Nikolai Leskov’s novella into something rich and compelling for a more contemporary audience, with strong feature debuts by director William Oldroyd and writer Alice Birch, and a fantastic and career-making lead performance by Florence Pugh.