Russian novella ‘Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District’ by Nikolai Leskov, receives a subversive make-over, through the eyes of director William Oldroyd.
Katherine (Florence Pugh) is sold into a marriage of convenience to an older gentleman, the wealthy Alexander (Paul Hilton). There's is a loveless coupling, where Katherine is held in constant contempt not only by Alexander but also by his father Boris (Christopher Fairbank). To the outsider, her life of affluence is desired, but in reality it is one of utter boredom where she is under complete control, unable to even move without the consent of Alexander or Boris. It's only in their absence that Katherine acquaints herself one of the workers on the estate; the handsome and virile Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis). Sebastien’s audacious advances at first startle her, but she eventually acquiesces and an affair develops to the dismay of her maid Anna (Naomie Ackie) who is shocked by Katherine’s boldness. When Alexander returns and an expected violent kerfuffle ensues between the three leads, Katherine releases her years of pent-up aggression.
With subtle yet stylish cinematography, scenes look and feel light and airy. Lit by an abundance of natural light, coming through numerous large windows of the 19th century manse, there is a certain simplicity to the settings. Minimal furniture and walls painted in subtle colour blocs, combine into a minimalism that lack any funfair and gives the Victorian setting a certain Nordic feel. Even Katherine’s wardrobe is strict; a lack of frills or fancy colours belying restrictive corsets and caged crinolines beneath.
Pugh is truly impressive as Katherine, creating a fascinatingly complex and alluring figure that constantly proves watchable. Her Lady Macbeth is a contradiction, liked and disliked at the same time, she is naturally flawed and runs full-steam ahead on emotion and instinct. Her emancipation comes in rather clumsy, uncalculated gestures of defiance that are met with violent eruptions. With Pugh conveying Katherine’s youthful exuberance and aggression, as a suppressed free spirit who lashes out at the unwanted boundaries imposed on her.
The blatant sexism portrayed in Lady Macbeth may be a true reflection of the severe gender inequality held at the time. While other period pieces’ gloss over such issues; Lady Macbeth wears it on its sleeve like a badge. Alexander’s resentment towards Katherine is extreme as he not as much as looks at or touches her. We see disturbing sex scenes where Katherine is ordered to stand naked in front of him, then made to look the other away while he relieves himself, her pleasure is meaningless to him.
At points this deliberate sexism is unpalatable, but Lady Macbeth still proves fascinating. Its simplicity speaking volumes and its cast of flawed characters produce a bleak and unabashed tale of passion and oppression that is bizarrely enchanting to watch.
Words by Daniel Theophanous
Lady Macbeth is out in cinemas on April 28