Lady Macbeth is loosely based on a Russian novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District by Nikolai Leskov. Published in 1865, (the year that this film is set) the book has been adapted into several different mediums, including an earlier Polish film, a ballet, and an opera by Shostakovich. The debut feature of director William Oldroyd, this film adaptation changes the setting to an unspecified part of Northern England that recalls the foreboding landscapes of Wuthering Heights and other works in the Gothic vein, but its pared-back approach to period drama creates a film that is starkly effective and memorable.
The setup of Lady Macbeth is a familiar one – a young, spirited woman reluctantly enters a transactional, unfulfilling marriage with an older man. What sets this heroine apart from the Madame Bovaries and Anna Karenina’s of the world is the way her quest for sexual and personal freedom spirals into a solipsistic determination to achieve her own happiness at any cost. Katherine (Florence Pugh) is essentially sold to the taciturn Alexander (Paul Hilton), who is unwilling or perhaps unable to consummate the union. Trapped and bored, and under the constant scrutiny and censure of her father in law, Boris (Christopher Fairbank), she begins a relationship with Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), one of the workers on the estate. Of course they are discovered, and of course Katherine is unwilling to give up her new paramour. The story that follows has the Gothic overtones reminiscent of the Brontes, and the suspenseful plotting of a Du Maurier novel, but Lady Macbeth is much more than a pastiche of literary references.
It’s difficult to discuss without giving away several key twists in the plot, but the film sets itself apart from other films of its genre through its examination of the class and racial dynamics of the time period. One of the film’s best performances comes from Naomi Ackie, in an almost wordless portrayal of Anna, Katherine’s maid. The casting of a black actress in this part is in line with the actual historical population of Britain at that time, but it stands out against the vast majority of period pieces that tend to favour all white casts. Though Anna’s race is never acknowledged, the reality of her situation is always present, and it adds another layer to the conflict, as Katherine, once a victim, begins to gain power by exploiting the prejudices inherent in the hierarchies that once oppressed her.
Lady Macbeth is ostensibly a period piece, but the film’s spare, precise direction has little time for the lavish sets and elaborate costuming that are usually the hallmark of the genre. Though Katherine’s husband and father in law are wealthy, their large house is only represented on film in terms of how it contributes to Katherine’s constricted life. The still, symmetrical shots place her in the centre of the sitting room’s lifeless opulence, and the sound design reinforces both her boredom and confinement – playing up approaching footsteps, the ticking of a clock. This isn’t to say the film isn’t stunning to look at – special credit should be given to the cinematographer, the Australian Ari Wegner. Every shot is carefully composed, like a series of still life paintings – such as Katherine and her maid attempting to stay awake in dim candlelight, or the corpse of a horse rotting into the ground. A repeated shot – of Katherine sitting in her living room alone – manages, without speech or movement, to track the progress of the character throughout the whole of the film.
Overall, it’s hard to classify this film in terms of any one genre; it’s a period drama that functions like a suspense thriller, with hints of Gothic horror and even occasional instances of dark comedy. The story deals with the wild excess and the grimy pettiness of human emotion, but the austere, confident direction and excellent performances create a film that feels less lurid than calmly chilling in its exploration of a system that allows those it oppresses to gain power at the cost of those below them.