Lady Macbeth – Film Review
Directed by William Oldroyd
Starring Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis, Christopher Fairbank, Naomi Ackie
Reviewed by David Turpin
William Oldroyd, heretofore best known as an opera director, makes a striking feature debut with Lady Macbeth, a ruthlessly compressed 19th-century period piece centering on the escalating rebellions of Katherine (Florence Pugh), a young woman sold into a loveless marriage.
Pared to the bone, and perfectly in tune with the harshness of its landscape, Oldroyd’s film initially most closely recalls Andrea Arnold’s fascinatingly tactile adaptation of Wuthering Heights (2011). Like that film, Lady Macbeth brings a distinctly modern sensibility to the material of period drama – not only pictorially but also thematically, particularly with regard to issues of race. However, unlike Arnold, Oldroyd is not tethered to a text that everybody knows back-to-front. His film is a relocation of Russian author Nikolai Leskov’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (1865), which was the basis of Andrzej Wajda’s little-seen Siberian Lady Macbeth (1962), and which itself remains comparatively little-read. Hence, while Arnold was ultimately hamstrung by the conflict between literary fidelity and auteur style, Oldroyd has no such problem with which to contend.
The result is a fascinating play of familiarity and unfamiliarity throughout, as Leskov’s source text brings to the surface ripples not only of the Shakespearean character to whom its title alludes, but also to a pair of roughly contemporaneous French sources – Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Zola’s Therese Raquin. Perhaps most intriguingly, the transplant of the story from page to screen also evokes a lineage of hard-boiled noir anti-heroines (particularly Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity), far more than it does the cosier enclaves of the crinoline genre.
That the film feels both authentically of the past and determinedly of the present is partially on account of Oldroyd’s command of style – which only occasionally lapses into the locked-off medium-wide clichés of post-Haneke ‘serious film’ shorthand – but is most of all down to an extraordinary performance from Pugh. The actress, who made a memorable debut in Carol Morley’s The Falling (2014), grips like a vice in this part. Her Katherine never courts our sympathies. Rather, she seems to stare back at us with the same steely inscrutability throughout – suggesting the disturbing idea that the capacity to withstand cruelty and the capacity to mete it out ultimately spring from the same root.
In other words, that which is ‘heroic’ about Katherine is completely indivisible from that which is ‘monstrous’ about her. Oldroyd’s film and Pugh’s performance are therefore less about the ‘downfall’ of a woman into ‘wickedness’ – a clichéd tragic narrative we’ve seen a thousand times – than the unknowable depth of a character who, when pushed, will always be able to push back harder. In that sense, Lady Macbeth makes an interesting comparison with Justin Kurzel’s plasticky Macbeth (2015), which had a nice enough turn from Marion Cotillard as the actual Lady Macbeth, but which went to great and unnecessary lengths to ‘humanise’ the character with the age-old device of maternal bereavement. By contrast, neither Oldroyd nor Pugh diagnoses, pathologises, or editorialises Katherine – she exists outside judgment, both when she is a victim, and when she is a villain. It’s a startling breakthrough performance that is sure to be among the best of the year.