Despite the title, and a few suspicious deaths and machinations of intrigue and deceit, you will find no mention of Shakespeare in this visceral, yet austere, telling of LADY MACBETH as screenwriter Alice Birch delves into the moral ambiguity of 1865, all to exquisite result. You may, however, find more than a few nods to the glory of Hitchcockian suspense. Based on Nikolai Leskov’s Lady Makbeth of Mtensk, issues of race, class and gender make this story as timely today as it was in 1865 Russia or in 19th century rural England where screenwriter Alice Birch has relocated the film.
Exquisitely rendered by director William Oldroyd in his feature directorial debut, the precision of framing, character movement and sound is as deliberate and metaphoric as the stunning performance of Florence Pugh in the title role of Katherine.
17-year old Katherine has been “sold” into an arranged marriage to the much older Alexander as a means to repay a family debt. Resentful of not only the marriage but of her new husband and his wealthy father Boris, a colliery magnate with Alexander as his only heir, Katherine is like a randy steed determined to break free of the reins forced upon her by her now station in life. Looked upon as mere chattel by Alexander, and particularly by Boris, while obedient to the demands of her father-in-law, and succumbing to the somewhat awkward marital relations between she and Alexander, beneath her cold empty eyes, something dark lies within Katherine.
Under the dutiful watch of maid Anna, no movement of Katherine’s goes unnoticed. She is essentially under house arrest. No walks on the grounds, no riding any one of the numerous horses stabled at the manor, no visitors but for the pastor. There is no conversation but that initiated by Boris, or a drunken Alexander late at night in the privacy of the master bedroom. So constrained is Katherine’s life that Boris even commands her when to have sex with Alexander in order to secure the family lineage. (Thanks to Oldroyd’s visual and aural design, and Birch’s script, it seems evident that either Alexander is impotent or does not favor those of the female persuasion.)
But things soon change for Katherine as first Alexander is sent away for an extended trip to outlying family holdings, and then Boris also leaves. From the first moment of morning’s freedom, Katherine heads out about the grounds and then for a walk on the cliffs outlying the estate. For the first time we see her eyes light up, a spring in her step; an ease as if breathing a sigh of relief.
Out about the grounds one day, she hears a disturbance in the barns. Unabashed in her movements and opinions, she heads to the barn and finds the maid Anna trussed up in a sack like a pig being weighed for slaughter and sale. On ordering the servants to release Anna, Katherine gets into a physical confrontation with one of the grooms, a young black man named Sebastian. Clearly flustered at his physicality in grabbing her and picking her up, she is nevertheless excited. Her cheeks flush, her breathing becomes rapid. She tries to rebuff and dismiss what all see, but is clearly unenthusiastic in her dismissal of the physical attention. Needless to say, Katherine embarks on a deliciously sexually frenzied affair with Sebastian, much to the disapproval of the God-fearing Anna.
With Alexander and Boris gone, Katherine is unafraid and unashamed in flaunting Sebastian about. She dresses him in Alexander’s clothes, has him stay in her bed each night. Katherine’s exuberance is almost contagious. The more she has, the more she wants. And she wants it all. And all the while, Anna peeps through the keyhole.
And then Boris returns. Forced to turn Sebastian back out into the barn to sleep, Katherine determines to find a way to return to her wanton ways and do as she pleases and do so with Sebastian, especially when Boris chastises and threatens her about her adulterous actions in the absence of himself and Alexander. Seems Anna has been tattling. The solution is clear. Boris must be eliminated.
But what happens when Alexander ultimately returns, unbeknownst to all but Katherine and Sebastian? Will he stay? Go? Or meet an untimely end? And what is Katherine to do when a young black child appears at the door with a guardian, allegedly the son or ward of Alexander? How far will she go to be with Sebastian and to get “her way”?
Everything about LADY MACBETH serves the deliberateness and intent of not only Katherine, but the demands and rituals imposed upon her by her husband Alexander and father-in-law Boris, starting with Florence Pugh’s performance. Pugh is hypnotic. With every step she takes, both with her feet on the cold echoing wood floors and with the calculated moves she makes to deliver herself from the deliberateness of manners and methods in the household (wonderful dichotomy), she is deliberate, purposeful and staid, but with a look of mind-numbing disdain for the world around her. Her hands speak volumes, as do her empty eyes. But then when Katherine meets Sebastian, Pugh does a 180 and comes to life with rabid lust leading to laughter and lightness. Pugh brings the character to life with a visceral force but then thanks to a well-crafted story, as happy and free as Katherine is with Sebastian, the intensity of her calculating mind grows darker, psychotic, and more heinous in thought. An incredible character study that also probes the mind of Katherine by her thoughts, deeds and actions. The character of Katherine is fascinating by itself, but Pugh fascinates even further with her interpretation.
I am unimpressed with Cosmo Jarvis. He doesn’t sit well in the role very much in a fish-out-of-water sense. There is nothing attractive about him as Sebastian – other than perhaps not being too bright which allows Katherine to manipulate him. When looking at the totality of Katherine’s romantic circumstances, she’s got a greasy-headed drunk in Alexander on one hand and a dirty and disgusting groomsman on the other. I suspect, however, that the purpose in casting Jarvis was to expose Katherine’s more guttural side and the idea that she’ll go slumming in order to be free of Alexander and Boris. Never once does one believe that Katherine loves Sebastian or vice versa. Interesting is that neither Katherine nor Sebastian ever feel like they belong in the main house of the manor, yet both have a great ease and comfort in the barn.
Christopher Fairbank is appropriately cast as the disgusting crumb-wearing Boris while Paul Hilton wears Alexander’s greasy hair well. (If I were Katherine, I would be thankful he didn’t want to touch me.) Both men are so vile in manner and appearance it will actually make one actually root for Katherine to find herself and some joy.
From where did director William Oldroyd come? His sense of cinematic construct – from costume to performance to cinematography to sound – is masterful. With Dan Jones’ extremely sparse score (and I do mean sparse), Oldroyd relies heavily on specific sound – the roaring wind and crashing surf on the cliffs below, deliberate paced footsteps in a hallway, the yowls and pounding of a man locked in a room as he is dying, Alexander masturbating to Katherine’s naked backside. The sound is spectacular. Truly a sonic experience with a stunning aural soundscape. The sound design, and hollow echo in the house metaphorically speaks to Katherine’s hollow existence. The wind and surf mirror her rising lust and bring a feral side of her to light. And the happier Katherine is, or the more things are going the way she wants, the less hollow the sound. By film’s end with husband missing, father-in-law dead, the young ward Teddy out of the picture, and Anna along with Sebastian getting their supposed comeuppance, leaving Katherine with the manor and the wealth, there are no more footsteps, only a slowly swelling score. Sound tells a complete story.
But then there’s the cinematography. Totally unfamiliar with Ari Wegner, I find his work here captivating. Framing within the manor is perfect, symmetrical, deliberate and methodical. However, once Katherine embarks on her affair with Sebastian, the camera moves into close-ups of body parts, pairings, stolen moments, keyhole peeps (a scene which has a beautiful golden glow of lighting of Katherine and Sebastian in the throes of passion while we see only through the keyhole). The camera plays on corners and edges, hard and defining, countering with languid looks at the lovers. Lighting is somewhat harsh and stark within the manor when Alexander or Boris are around; more golden when Teddy arrives. A beauteous metaphoric dichotomy stands out as white bright light streams through windows during as Boris is choking to death in another room while Katherine and Anna sit at the dining room table with light filling the room and flooding their faces, akin to exposing all that motivates each of them. We see each for whom really are; Anna a snitch devoted to her masters, and Katherine determined to eliminate from her life all who stand in her way – and with no compunction about what she is doing. The visual tonal bandwidth is exquisite.
Jacqueline Abraham’s production design is rather spartan, but effectively so in a very symmetrical fashion, while serving as a contrast to the beauty of the wide-open countryside surrounding the estate. Following through with the restrictive nature of Katherine’s existence is costumer Holly Waddington who fits Pugh with the tightest costuming and corsetting possible, something of which we are reminded daily as Katherine goes through the rote of dressing with Anna layering and lacing her up.
Missteps come into play with Sebastian moving into the house and sitting to meals all trussed up in Alexander’s clothes. There is a palpable level of discomfort in watching him like that, but by the same token, when he is cast back out into the barn to sleep he is wearing his old dirty clothes. Why is he not at least wearing a clean shirt? And slight spoiler alert – There is a dead horse on the grounds. Why did no one ever find the dead horse?
An intelligent and hypnotically fascinating study of mores, morality, and a woman named LADY MACBETH.
Directed by William Oldroyd
Written by Alice Birch based on Nikolai Leskov’s Lady Makbeth of Mtensk
Cast: Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis, Paul Hilton, Christopher Fairbank
by debbie elias, 07/05/2017