Director: William Oldroyd
Written by: Alice Birch. Adapted from the novella “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District” by Nikolai Leskov
Cast: Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis, Paul Hilton, Naomi Ackie, Christopher Fairbank
Screened at: Review 2, NYC, 6/14/17
Opens: July 14, 2017
If you read Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” and were particularly mesmerized by the role of Lady Macbeth, you might get the impression (if you’re just a naïve high-school junior) that behind every successful male murderer lies an ambitious, cold-blooded woman. A couple of centuries post-Bard, the Russian author Nikolai Leskov penned a novella which he called by the less-than-compelling title “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District,” and that’s not all. Dimitri Shostakovich used the tale for his opera of the same title, first performed in Leningrad in 1934—one filled with such godforsaken dissonance that you will turn back a while to a time of less cacophony than that promulgated during the 20th Century to enjoy Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro.”
“Lady Macbeth” focuses on a marriage of the sort not completely unknown in our neck of the Western Hemisphere. In short, it was short. And it was unhappy. Writer Alice Birch, faced with the challenge of adapting Leskov’s novella, shifts from Russia of 1865 to 19th Century England. She creates a good guy who becomes a bad guy; one in which the oppressed becomes the oppressor. (We need not mention the many areas of the world peopled by victims of imperialism and worse who are accused of becoming despotic today.)
Since Director William Oldroyd’s reputation is on the line with his first full-length movie, he is fortunate in starring Florence Pugh as title character, a woman whose prior film experience has been only in “The Falling,” wherein she played a charismatic pupil in a 1969 English girls’ school faced with a mysterious fainting epidemic. Given the superior script of “Lady Macbeth,” Pugh shines.
Katherine (Florence Pugh) has been sold by her debt-ridden father to a scrofulous gaffer, Boris (Christopher Fairbank), who owns a large house with considerable land and which employs a cook, a housemaid Anna (Naomi Ackie) and groundkeepers, notably Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis). All are intimidated by the old fella, including Katherine. Her husband’s erectile dysfunction could symbolize the reactionary British law that allowed women to be sold to men twice their age. Though Alexander on his wedding night orders his wife to take off her nightclothes and face the wall, he oddly slips into bed and turns to his left side, nodding right off to sleep. When Alexander must leave town for a while, the sexually frustrated Katherine does what any other subjugated woman would do: she seduces the groundkeeper. (Feminists in the theater audience might take issue, since the brutish but strangely ethical Sebastian first tries to force himself on the young woman.) With her new confidence and irrepressible horniness, Katherine can’t get enough of the working-class fellow, but her newfound freedom turns her from victim to victimizer.
That’s where Katherine turns into her section of merrie England’s Lady Macbeth in a movie that’s minimalist rather than the expected Masterpiece Theatre type of drama. The dialogue is spare yet energetic, the emotions bold and all-consuming. In fact Anna, the housemaid who follows orders but is virtually mute, becomes the catalyst for an expose of enough murders which, if actually occurring today, would rate the attention of PM Theresa May and the membership of both the Commons and the House of Lords. The scenery could be reminiscent of areas in classics like “Wuthering Heights,” all photographed in England’s County Durham, Northumberland, Tyne and Wear. No attempt is made to embroider the area, and even the old Boris admits that the pasture would not be suitable for the raising of cows.
Some in the theater audience might embrace Katherine, even excusing her sins, a woman with a force unleashed, possessing an angelic beauty but a person who will stop at absolutely nothing for vengeance and to get what she wants.
Unrated. 90 minutes. © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Comments, readers? Agree? Disagree? Why?
Story – A-
Acting – A-
Technical – B
Overall – B+