Director: William Oldroyd
Screenplay: Alice Birch
Starring: Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis, Paul Hilton, Naomi Ackie, Christopher Fairbank
Runtime: 89 Minutes
Lady Macbeth is the directorial debut of William Oldroyd, loosely inspired by Nikolai Leskov’s 19th-centurynovella, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. Essentially a story of female empowerment borrowing from themes of subordinate roles and provincial life in contemporary European society from works such as Flaubert's Madame Bovary, the main reference point for comparison calls to the Shakespeare play of the same name.
But like her Shakespearian counterpart, Katherine Lester (Florence Pugh) is the true master of her own fate in a world dominated by men, and the implicit ruler of the house in which she resides, with an agency and focus returned to her.
Stranded and isolated in a loveless marriage on a country estate, the film masters the unspoken rule of depicting the boredom of her repetitive day-to-day existence without ever being boring itself. Oldroyd’s direction is strong and remarkably controlled with static frames that place her at points painterly in the middle of the empty frame, where her striking dress of bold blue stands out in the faded and withered environments.
What follows is the slow destruction of an absent patriarchy that appears to exist in title only, as her impotent husband Alexander (Paul Hilton) and old guard father-in-law Boris (Christopher Fairbank) are rarely present, and as such allow her to flex her restraints until she is able to cause some real damage. Although there are certain contrivances that come of such a small cast, it doesn't infringe on the story it's telling.
Florence Pugh’s performance is intelligent, alive and downright hilarious at points in a way which subversively top ends her expectation and demeanour. She’s a dazzling presence of rabblerousing manners of expression and human reaction, and you want to cheer her on as she gives into the temptation of common worker Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis) and tears down the established order piece-by-piece.
That is until the events of the final act where the foreplay of playful dialogues and turns of phrase wears itself down as the blood begins to flow and the lies grow deeper. An unspeakable act of violence is lingered upon and plays out uninterrupted in a single objective take that feels reminiscent of Michael Haneke’s presentations of violence, and the full realisation of the horrors she has partaken in settles all at once on the mind of an audience who have until this point been wanting her to push further on – even while her undertakings have traumatised onlookers such as Naomi Ackie’s terrifically played servant, Anna.
A small and surreptitious production containing only a handful of performers, Lady Macbeth is an unusual and unexpectedly enjoyable effort for a promising first-time feature director. But the reason to see it is for Florence Pugh’s undeniably captivating and deadpan performance that remains seated in the memory after the excellent final frame has played out.