Adapted from Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 novel “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District”, which is itself inspired from Macbeth by Shakespeare, William Oldroyd swells the period drama with a smart and subtle placing of themes like race, obstinate desires, class division, and violence set in the 19th century English. The fervid desire of a young Katherine (Pugh), sold to the Lesters, fills the air with growing sexual tension when her husband, the bitter and tormented Alexander (Paul Hilton), strangely deprives her of any sexual pleasure.
Screenwriter Alice Birch’s narrative strength lies in the compelling portrayal of the characters’ dilemmas, for their shifting moral ground keeps you on your toes. As the winter gets chillier, the subversive nature of the characters gets murkier and blindfolds its audience into guessing the right and wrong. The impertinent sexual desire gets clamorous and makes the murder of an authoritarian patriarch feel liberating. The dull color taste of the screen lit up with natural lights gives an eerie look to a mansion that stocks few characters making room for jealousy and hatred and abuse to prosper in full swing. Brewing with the constant mystery of characters on the verge of insidiousness with every passing second, the film descends deep into a catastrophe that blurs the lines of moral corruption and love.
Katherine, struggling to adjust in the new mansion like a trapped bird as she claims her liking for fresh air, feels humiliated and dejected when her husband masturbates looking at her naked back, instead of making love to her. After her husband and father in law go out on some business, she grows a fondness for a newly appointed stableman, Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis). They start having an intense sexual relationship that scares the impassive housemaid Anna, played impressively by Naomi Ackie, the only character whose integrity stays firm until her feminine consciousness is threatened.
At one point, the bonds of love and hate between Katherine & Anna turn into a resolute feminist tale that ultimately perishes the chauvinist equation from their lives with peace as its causality. The monstrous performance of a sure-footed Florence Pugh is the biggest take away of Lady Macbeth. The restrained writing that absorbs the thick surroundings resembling “Downtown Abbey” subtly addresses the social crisis, racial exploitation, and class division. Lady Macbeth is a fiercely powerful film that will distress you and make you uncomfortable for the entire length of the tragic drama that unfolds leisurely.
Lady Macbeth (2017) Directed by William Oldroyd. Written by Alice Birch. Starring: Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis, Paul Hilton, Naomi Acki