William Oldroyd’s stunningly hard-hitting feature debut feels like Jane Campion’s The Piano, which clearly pulls the story away from Shakespeare, highlighting it is by no means a direct and loyal adaptation of Macbeth. With a limited budget, Oldroyd’s work is more than passable with stylised cinematography, incurably alluring performances, particularly from Florence Pugh as the unabashed killer. Lady Macbeth is a beautifully shot, gobsmackingly visceral film, which leans more to Andrea Arnold’s adaptation of Wuthering Heights or as aforementioned, Jane Campion’s bold The Piano, with Harvey Keitel and Holly Hunter.
Dramatist and screenwriter Alice Birch has taken Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 novel Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District and adapted it, which in itself is inspired by Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Oldroyd’s new adaptation with the talented work of Birch has been confidently shot by cinematographer Ari Wegner. Oldroyd holds all of this story’s sexual deviances with obvious changes made, bringing in themes of abuse and race. Pugh’s mesmerizing performance leads the film with her passion and malice.
The film setting this time is the English north east of the 19th century, where Pugh plays Katherine, an aesthetically striking young lady, married off to Alexander (Paul Hilton), the miserable, enigmatic and brooding yet sexually inadequate son of abusive mine owner, Boris (Christopher Fairbank). The mine owner is in command in this household, accusing Katherine of being a disappointing and disloyal wife. During the catastrophic wedding night, we get a glimpse of Alexander’s face but not only that but how abusive his horrendous father can be.
Katherine, with both men away for long periods of time, is left imprisoned in this barren manor house within the confines of a moor. She rebels firstly by receding first into tiredness, then drinking, and then the more sexual deviance of showing an interest in Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), the fractious young estate worker. It becomes apparent as we are introduced to Sebastian that race is a significant theme of the film with him, mixed race, and housemaid Anna black. His initial treatment of Anna, combined with his attempts to forge more of a bond with the maid, played delicately by Naomi Ackie, expresses their constantly shifting loyalties, highlighting the power of the white ruling class, which Katherine, herself, is obviously struggling to remain loyal to.
With wonderfully conservative but raw cinematography, this film is a wonderfully shocking adaptation, which incorporated performances that paid homage. As Katherine, Pugh has the ambition of Shakespeare’s character, yet also the yearning of an ardent woman subjected to the class tyranny of wifehood, as well as a risk that takes on a life of its own, bound by her frustration. Don’t go expecting Shakespeare but I doubt he would be turning in his confines to witness this performance affiliated with his great works. Oldroyd has culminated a fantastic debut feature.
Lady Macbeth is playing at The Filmhouse in Edinburgh until 1st June.