Lady Macbeth (2016)

  • Time: 89 min
  • Genre: Drama
  • Director: William Oldroyd
  • Cast: Florence Pugh, Christopher Fairbank, Cosmo Jarvis


Rural England, 1865. Katherine is stifled by her loveless marriage to a bitter man twice her age, whose family are cold and unforgiving. When she embarks on a passionate affair with a young worker on her husband’s estate, a force is unleashed inside her, so powerful that she will stop at nothing to get what she wants.

One review

  • To be a woman in the world is to considered inferior, the second sex, mere property devoid of any rights or free will. Women rebelling against such notions have been fodder for many a writer, great or otherwise, the majority of whom have tracked how such independent-minded, free-spirited and sexually desirous women have often been tragically crushed by societal conventions. Take Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley, Émile Zola’s Thérèse Raquin, or Thomas Hardy’s Sue Bridehead in Jude the Obscure.

    Those heroines are spiritual sisters to Katherine, fiercely and formidably portrayed by Florence Pugh in British director William Oldroyd’s remarkable directorial debut, Lady Macbeth. Based on the 1865 novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District by Nikolai Leskov, which itself was based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the tale begins with Katherine’s marriage to the older Alexander (Paul Hilton), who immediately proves himself a distant, disinterested and sexually dysfunctional husband. She finds scant solace in the long stretch of days – forbidden to even stroll outside by her husband and his domineering father Boris (Christopher Fairbank), she slowly literally and figuratively suffocates inside her prison of a home. Corseted daily by house servant Anna (Naomi Ackie), who also performs the nightly ritual of untangling her mistress’s hair, Katherine simply sits and waits and waits and waits.

    When both Alexander and Boris leave town for several weeks to attend to business, Katherine stages a mutiny. It begins with minor infractions – taking walks and breathing in the sea air – and escalates into the major offense of conducting a passionate affair with farmhand Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis). Anna observes Katherine’s scandalous behaviour with an ever-growing fear of what might happen when Alexander and Boris return. As the film’s title clearly signals, Katherine is not above being cunning and conniving to get what she wants, whether it be doing away with those preventing her from continuing her affair with Sebastian or exploiting Sebastian and Anna’s race (both are black) to ensure the security of her own fragile position in the household. Katherine is a survivor through and through, and the chillingly methodical and unrepentant manner with which she does what she feels needs to be done will make one’s blood run cold.

    Screenwriter Alice Birch strips Leskov’s novella to its barest essentials and yet, even with Oldroyd’s equally unfussy direction, Lady Macbeth feels epic in ambition, combining elements of British heritage drama, feminist period piece, steamy noir, and racial and class critique into one cohesive whole. Oldroyd and his production team craft an excellently textured work out of an extremely limited budget (reportedly £500,000 as part of a regional film-funding program supported by BBC Films and the British Film Institute). Cinematographer Ari Wegner creates symmetrical compositions that emphasise the house’s gloomy and almost claustrophobic interiors. The vibrant peacock-blue gown that seems to dim with each wearing, subtly conveying the rot overtaking its wearer, is courtesy of costume designer Holly Waddington.

    The cast are uniformly excellent, but the film would be nothing without the nineteen-year-old Pugh, whose clear, consistent and masterful characterisation should establish her as an extremely talented actress with a hugely promising career.

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