Review: 'Lady Macbeth'

The excellent debut feature by William Oldroyd delivers cold beauty, moody melodrama
The impressive Florence Pugh plays a calculating killer in 'Lady Macbeth.'

The film is called Lady Macbeth, but it's less like Shakespeare than The Postman Always Rings Twice. It's based on Nikolai Leskov's The Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, first published in 1865 in a magazine edited by Dostoyevsky. The story of tyranny and murder was the source for Dmitri Shostakovich's last opera.

Transferred from the Russian hinterlands to a backward northeast corner of England, Lady Macbeth asks a familiar question from decades of melodrama: are murderesses made or born? Debuting feature director William Oldroyd leaves that question open. The much abused, then much abusing, protagonist, Katherine (Florence Pugh, impressive), is transformed from a piece of living property to a chortling killer.

Wearing a cobwebby veil on her head, she's married, and her maid Anna (Naomi Ackie) fixes her up for the wedding night. A small gathering of tyrants attend the wedding. One is Katherine's vile, rotten-toothed father-in-law Boris (Christopher Fairbanks), a recently ennobled coal baron. The groom is Boris' equally nasty son Alexander (Paul Hilton), who has the spoiling-for-a-fight look of a jaded old rock star. Alexander's idea of seduction is ordering his bride to strip and face the wall. She stands exposed while we hear the wet, flapping-fish sound of him masturbating off camera. When an emergency takes the father and son out on business, the new bride is forbidden to go out and explore the woods. Margaret has been alone for some time when she encounters the new horse-groom Sebastian (the musician Cosmo Jarvis); the unwashed brute later breaks into Margaret's room.

Oldroyd's sleek and speedy melodrama has a lot of beauty in it, and not in just the area's wildness and waterfalls. In deliberately banal yet wanton performances, Pugh turns down the candlepower of her prettiness. It's still visible. She's impassive as she's cruelly lashed into corsets, and when she's seen sitting, bored, in a dark blue satin hoopskirt. Her elaborate braids match the oak carvings in a fireplace, and it's as if she's evolving into a piece of furniture. When the pig Alexander calls Katherine a pig for gratifying her appetites, we realize we've seen glimpses of a porcine satiation in her face after one of her nights with Sebastian.

After Alexander the husband damns Katherine as a whore, she fetches Sebastian out of hiding, hikes up her nightshirt and mounts him right in front of the impotent bully she married. Trysting out in the wet leaves, the adulteress wrings a promise out of Sebastian to stay with her "to the cross, to the prison, to the grave, to the sky." The too-elaborate vows say it all: what's here is not romance, it's clean pure lust. When that lust is satisfied, what's left is the matter of who will dominate whom...easy to figure, given that Katherine is the lady of the manor, and Sebastian is a stable-man who sleeps on the ground.

We see Anna gathering mushrooms, as in The Beguiled; Lady Macbeth has the musk and tanginess that Coppola's film didn't deliver. And when we see Anna scrubbing her mistresses' back as if it were a greasy floor, we're in a darker melo than we were in My Cousin Rachel.

Oldroyd deserves praise for some ingenious sailing with the prevailing winds. The British describe Jane Austen-mania as "Bonnet tradition films." At a quick glance Lady Macbeth looks like such a film, but it's colder, trickier and bloodier.

Many of the cast are of African descent, a sentence I wouldn't write except that, yeah, I noticed, and I doubt if anything should be read into it. It's a similar case to Andrea Arnold's Wuthering Heights with its black Healthcliff. The sons and daughters of slaves were present in the British life of the time. Color-blind casting fits a tale of plausible viciousness, matching the ruthless rich with the scheming poor. No matter what their color, oppressed people jockey for position, using everything from violence to gossip. A little kid who turns up in the third act could be accused of trying to use his cuteness for his personal advantage. Even the cat of the house looks manipulative and comfortless, sitting on the chair across from Katherine, staring up at her murderous keeper, a look of scorn on its face.

Lady Macbeth
R, 90 Mins.
Camera 3 & Aquarius

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