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Based not on the well-known Shakespearean play but rather Nikolai Leskov‘s 1865 novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, which drew inspiration from the play’s themes, William Oldroyd‘s Lady Macbeth is a film of great stillness that may not follow the tale we know but does grip in its portrayal of the woman at its heart.
In England, in the mid 1800s, 17-year-old Katherine (Florence Pugh) is forced into marriage with a man named Alexander (Paul Hilton), who is more than twice her age. It is a loveless, sexless arrangement, despite her duty to bear a son, leaving her in great depths of loneliness and boredom. When Alexander and his father, who lives on the estate, partake on a business trip, she is left alone with her mostly mute maid Anna (Naomi Ackie), and takes to the fresh air and the sexual embrace of a farmhand named Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), the two embarking on a torrid affair, which awakens within her a passion she’s never known, and indeed a recklessness with great consequence.
To explain more would be to ruin what comes next, but lest be sured it is a devious and terrifying journey of a woman gone to extremes in a world where women are subjugated and dehumanized. Her actions in the face of torment and belittlement are ruthless to be sure and Pugh is chilling throughout in a performance that burrows deep into the spirit of Shakespeare’s infamous conspiratorial Queen. Oldroyd puts the weight of the story fully on Pugh’s and she heaves it up on her shoulders with great effort. This is a film that requires subtlety and Pugh’s every action is as such.
Who Katherine is and where she comes from is less explored than why, the duties she’s meant to fulfill (she was purchased with a plot of land not fit for a cow) are expected to be adhered to without question, thus leaving her to a life of sitting inside with a prayer book. The atrocities she commits as the story expands though feel organic and Oldroyd allows them to occur with a kind of synergy, sometimes with them happening while we aren’t even sure it is. A moment with her father-in-law is masterpiece of suspense and terror that is played, like much of the film, without a single chord of music as Katherine sits above it with troubling presence.
The relationship between Sebastian and Katherine is a tumultuous one of course, his callous and indifferent attitude the light to which she so recklessly flutters about. It combusts within her though and what follows is a devastating odyssey where there are no heroes and the price one pays to be free becomes a prison all to itself.
Movie description: Lady Macbeth is a 2017 drama about a young bride who has been sold into marriage to a middle-aged man, discovering an unstoppable desire within herself as she enters into an affair with a worker on her estate.
Director(s): William Oldroyd
Actor(s): Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis, Paul Hilton