Transplanting Russian writer Nikolai Leskov’s influential 1865 novella, “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District“, to the pastoral emptiness of 19th century rural England, first-time feature director William Oldroyd and screenwriter Alice Birch have crafted a striking morality play that allows rising star Florence Pugh to give a breakout performance for the ages.
Katherine (Pugh) is a young bride who has recently been sold into marriage to an older man, Alexander, who, alongside his father Boris, runs an expansive country estate. Constantly bullied by Boris, who demands she stay locked up inside, and shown no affection or sexual attention from her husband beyond brief moments of lecherous voyeurism, Katherine is bored as hell. So when both Alexander and Boris are called away on business for several weeks, Katherine is finally free to do as she pleases.
Venturing out into the fields, she is immediately drawn to Sebastian, one of the men who work the land for her husband. A passionate affair ensues, which Katherine more or less flaunts in front of the estate’s staff, particularly the put-upon housemaid, Anna. As the weeks go by, Katherine and Sebastian live in bliss, but Alexander and Boris are due to come home eventually and word of her indiscretions is getting out.
It’s not too hard to surmise where the story of Lady Macbeth will eventually end up, but as a portrait of repressed female rage, it’s a complex thrill ride, especially once her husband and father-in-law reenter the picture and Katherine goes to ever more extreme lengths to cover up her actions. After only a couple of credits to her name, Pugh tears into this role with a fearless confidence, manipulating everyone around her while still eliciting our sympathy. As Katherine gradually assumes the reigns of power, her motivations become increasingly blurred. Is it just her initial oppression at the hands of older men that drives her or is something more sinister going on?
Oldroyd and Birch are both British theatre vets and Lady Macbeth is lensed almost like a heightened stage play. Each shot inside the estate is carefully composed, allowing Katharine’s increasingly erratic behaviour to more jarringly rupture the strict order that has stifled her. And with no music on the soundtrack or anything else to distance us from the events unfolding, the filmmakers have created a claustrophobic environment that holds you like a vice until the credits roll.
Is Lady Macbeth Essential Viewing?
Absolutely. Since it premiered at TIFF last year, the buzz has only gotten stronger and stronger. Psychothriller period pieces don’t come much better than this and Pugh, Oldroyd and Birch are all names you’re going to want to remember.
Lady Macbeth opens Friday, July 28, 2017 at TIFF Bell Lightbox. Check their website for more information.