Lady Macbeth has always been an intriguing character as she whispers sweet nothings into Macbeth’s ear before he commits an unfathomable sin. This woman for the ages serves as a source of inspiration for Nikolai Leskov’s novel Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District.
Alice Birch reworked Leskov’s novel and William Oldroyd took the lead in directing the 89-minute period drama for the big screen. Although no clear time period is distinguished in the film, it’s clear that it’s set during the Shakespearean-era as the noblemen are addressed as Sirs and there are slaves dotted around the grand manor Catherine (Florence Pugh) finds herself wandering in.
I found the title of Lady Macbeth to be quite ironic when Catherine seems to be anything but, as she doesn’t enjoy the tightening of a corset, or the brushing of her hair as she grunts with displeasure at the maid Anna. (Naomi Ackie) She often finds herself constantly trying to remain awake, and functions pretty much on autopilot.
The titular Lady Macbeth serves as inspiration for Catherine’s character, rather than producing a telling of Lady Macbeth. Catherine finds herself trapped in a loveless marriage and lives with an arrogant and snarling father-in-law. What I did not anticipate was the darker realms that Lady Macbeth delves into as Catherine vies for a happier life. I should have probably anticipated it with the title of Lady Macbeth.
As the loneliness consumes Catherine, she becomes arrogant in her own way as she barks at Anna for staring and even goes as far as assuming control of the manor as her husband and father-in-law attend to different matters.
As I mentioned, Alice Birch reworked the script from the original and (I can only assume this without reading the novel) placed the setting in Great Britain, as well as changing the names to the English sounding counterparts. I imagine this was to make Lady Macbeth more accessible for the moviegoers in the UK. What this allowed William Oldroyd to do is to take in the British countryside, and this really worked with the wind bellowing around Catherine, giving you the shivers as though you are almost stood there with the protagonist.
Birch managed to make the narrative work, as the screen becomes embroiled in a lust-heavy opening 40 minutes as Catherine engages in adulterous behaviour with one of the workers, Sebastian, (Cosmo Jarvis) but then as the film progresses it becomes tense as whether they can keep their relationship a secret, or do the walls have ears? But also Birch began telling an intriguing story as Sebastian and Catherine’s relationship is continually tested.
I believe the narrative structure is helped monumentally by the performance from Florence Pugh in her on screen-debut as from this solitary Catherine, to a menacing, vindictive woman is really helped by the nuanced facial features as she plots and contrives against her new family.
Her subtle movements from the opening to forty to the remaining forty create a worldly difference for the character of Catherine. She becomes enigmatic and grips the screen in every scene she is placed in.
William Oldroyd with Alice Birch’s script has created what is a rather enjoyable period drama. I’d be intrigued to read the novel that serves as the inspiration for Lady Macbeth, especially after really enjoying Justin Kurzel’s imagining of the Shakespearean tradic play. It would be worth seeking out Lady Macbeth solely for Florence Pugh’s incredible performance at the centre of this film. She dominates every scene she appears in and because quite a scary character through the 86 minute runtime.