Striking use of colour occupies endless layers of significance within William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth, a film based on Nicolai Leskov’s socially conscious, nineteenth century novel ‘Lady Macbeth and the Mtsensk District’. From the soul-draining dull brown tones of the house’s interior to the brilliant blue worn throughout by Florence Pugh’s Katherine Leicester, much can be teased, in terms of character and emotional dynamics, through the chromatics of their scenes. Note too, an ensemble cast that is diverse in ethnicity, achieving the balance in a way that feels intelligent, relevant and perfectly appropriate. If anything heralds the success of Lady Macbeth, it is absolutely the uncompromising confidence of its conviction and artfulness of its cleverly cineliterate styling. It is a harmony that, in creating intense disharmony, makes for one highly satisfying experience.
The film sees Leskov’s text, both titularly and thematically responding to the Shakespearean femme fatale (be prepared for nasty turns and watch out for a moment in which Katherine attempts to wash her hands in a lake), transferred from 1860s Russia to the north west of England. Bleak and expansive scenery recalls the gruelling aesthetics of Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights (2011) whilst the aural expressionism granted by heightened emphasis on creaking floorboards and heavy footsteps hark back to any number of the most gothic works, horror even.
It is in this repressive world that we are introduced to the film’s protagonist, a young woman sold to be married to much older Alexander (Paul Hilton), via an exchange co-ordinated by his cruel father, Boris (Christopher Fairbank, excellently vile). Katherine may not have to wear the pinafores of the household’s servants, but there is little doubt of her enslavement to this existence; commands processing quickly from the passive: ‘You’ll be more comfortable in the house’, to the aggressive: ‘Face the wall’. Perhaps mercifully, but no less disturbingly, Alexander has no interest in a physical sexual dominance of Katherine and instead utilises her as pornographic material for his own personal satisfactions. Once again, aural expression proves horrifically effective.
In these early scenes, it has to be said that not one aspect of the production makes a step wrong. Holly Waddington’s costumes are exquisite, Katherine’s crinoline and corset beneath that fabulously juxtaposing, ultramarine, dress only heightening the effect of her evident entrapment, whilst Ari Wegner’s cinematography offers atmospheric complementation to Oldroyd’s eye for scenography. Oldroud’s camera often places Katherine dead in the centre, framed within various backdrops – a sofa, wall panelling, a window alcove – whilst there is a meticulous balance in his use of wide, still shots and closer, handheld motions, which are key to the film’s many cleverly nuanced animalistic metaphor. There’s a real earthiness here, devoid of designer mud stains. Beneath all of this is a musical score so subtle and so rarely deployed that its moments of crescendo soar in their impact.
Having accumulated an impressive roster of ‘Breakthrough’ awards in recent years, look no further than here to witness the burgeoning might of Pugh. Even through one or two character decisions that sit slightly uncomfortably within personality traits, including the one upon which the crux of the second half rests, her performance is transfixing. Whilst in the first half Pugh’s youth allows her to capture a seemingly effortless display of restlessness, her transition to Machiavellian is frighteningly effective.
When Alexander and Boris leave the house for business, Katherine becomes acquainted with Cosmo Jarvis’ new groomsman, Sebastian. It is not long before the pair have sprung violently into an affair to make Lady Chatterly blush – the influence of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary felt here too – making little attempt to conceal themselves from those around them. One of the housemaids, Anna (Naomi Ackie), grows so increasingly disturbed by the sequence of ensuing events that a later, brutal plot twist ultimately shocks her into permanent silence as a mute. Any comedy from the cuckolding, including one priceless scene in which Katherine downs the kitchen’s entire stock of Fleurie in preparation for a dinner with her returned father-in-law, is transferred to trauma in the blink of an eye. From hereon, a fateful love story becomes a startling and devilish psychological drama.
What is most impressive about the film is the relative inexperience that drives it, intelligible in the quality of the result. Oldroyd and, writer, Alice Birch come from stage backgrounds, making this their inaugural cinematic features, whilst Pugh’s decorum of assurance is well beyond her years. Based on the evidence of Lady Macbeth, great things can and should be expected from all.