William Oldroyd, director
Alice Birch, screenplay, based on Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District by Nikolai Leskov
Starring: Florence Pugh (Katherine), Cosmo Jarvis (Sebastian), Naomie Ackie (Anna), Christopher Fairbanks (Boris), Paul Hilton (Alexandre)
Lady Macbeth, a drama about a murderous woman set in 19th century England, will intrigue lovers of Shakespeare. Clearly, the main character is based on the Bard but the story doesn’t mirror his famous “Scottish play.” What it does resemble is another masterpiece, Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk, which was unofficially, but quite effectively, banned by Stalin for its sympathetic depiction of a willful, highly sexual woman, who committed murder to get her way. Shostakovich’s opera, a classic Polish film by Andrzej Wajda and a ballet by Brucci had already been based on Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 novella before the British director William Oldroyd attempted his version last year.
His interpretation of Lady Macbeth is unsparing and minimal in its approach. A very young actress, Florence Pugh, plays the Lady, unhappily married off to Alexandre, who isn’t interested in her in any way—even sexually. If his neglect isn’t abusive enough, his pitiless father Boris is more savagely direct in his demeaning language and treatment of Katherine, the soon-to-be Lady Macbeth. 19th century England is presented as an arid time dominated by joyless petty aristocrats, land owners and factory bosses, whose main enjoyment lies in trampling down the ambitions of their workers. With Alexandre gone on a mission and Boris temporarily away, Katherine takes as a lover a good-looking womanizer, Sebastian.
Katherine’s rebellious path is set. To save Sebastian from punishment or death from Boris, she poisons the old man. And when Alexandre returns, his revenge-filled wife kills him with the aid of Sebastian. The duo gets away with those murders but when an inconvenient—and illegitimate—heir to the land shows up with his mother, you know where the story must go: to more deaths, even if they’re not deserved.
William Oldroyd has made an effective period piece, which has a clear resonance to today’s realities, where young people’s ambitions are thwarted in every way by a system that works to exclude them. His bare bones style is forceful. So are the performances by a cast, who were obviously told to hold back on the pyrotechnics in their big scenes.
Lady Macbeth is a film that one can admire but not love. It’s worth seeing: here is an honest piece of cinema. But, well, it’s not a date film. Go to it with someone you absolutely trust.
Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus
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