‘Lady Macbeth’ is a cold and confronting take on the period drama
The country house, familiar from so many hot toddy English period dramas, is reframed as a battlefield in Lady Macbeth, and not just of the verbal kind. Liberally adapted by English playwright Alice Birch from Nikolai Leskov’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, a Russian novella from 1865 that became a Shostakovich opera, this debut feature from theatre director William Oldroyd depicts 19th-century life in draughty Northumberland as stifling, and cold, and colossally dull. There are no dances to attend or sisters to provide companionship here.
Leskov chose his title because he felt his character, Katerina, shared some of the same qualities, but this story is not Shakespeare’s. Florence Pugh, who broke out in Carol Morley’s 2014 mystery The Falling, stars as Katherine, a teen married off to a mine owner’s son, a drunk who’d rather make her strip and face the wall while he masturbates from across the room than touch her. His father (veteran glarer Christopher Fairbank) humiliates him in front of dinner guests, and tells Katherine to wait up until her husband comes to bed, so that she can fulfil her marital duties. Her black maidservant, Anna (Naomi Ackie), is instructed to make sure she stays awake.
Anna is Birch’s chief invention, a composite figure engineered from two characters in Leskov’s original. She’s seen smiling only once, as she helps Katherine into a nightgown on her wedding night. Anna asks the young woman if she’s nervous, and it’s the last moment of confidence they share. Later, in a shot Oldroyd and his Australian cinematographer Ari Wegner (The Kettering Incident) return to several times, Anna enters Katherine’s room and wakes her by opening the shutters. The bedroom is the place of least dominion here – even the help barge in.
One does so violently. Katherine meets the hunched, dark-skinned groomsman Sebastian (English musician Cosmo Jarvis) in the stables, winching a naked Anna up in a cloth bag. “We’re weighing a pig, ma’am,” he explains. Katherine cows the onlookers by mimicking the language of her husband – “stop smiling”, “face the wall”. But in the aftermath she’s more interested in asking Anna the name of her tormentor than in enquiring after her health.
Sebastian is soon forcing his way inside Katherine’s bedroom, covering her mouth with his hand. She bites it, he kisses her, she pushes him away, but then lunges at him, tearing at his belt buckle. Their subsequent affair is an open secret, with Anna watching through the keyhole. Editor Nick Emerson (Starred Up) cuts, with mordant humour, from Katherine fucking to Katherine taking tea with the local pastor, who advises an increase in solitude and contemplation.
Katherine’s determination to preserve the relationship leads to bouts of violence in which she lives up to the film’s title. Aussie filmmaker Justin Kurzel’s recent Macbeth located the loss of a child as the beginning of Lady Macbeth’s unravelling, but Katherine rejects the maternal impulse entirely. Her husband’s ward, Teddy (Anton Palmer) – black, like the grandmother that accompanies him – comes to stay, and drives a wedge between Katherine and Sebastian that proves fatal to at least one of them.
Oldroyd’s 2013 short Best showed him to be a filmmaker comfortable with moving the camera very little, in a manner perhaps expected for a director who made his bones in theatre. But that film and this one feel precise rather than cautious, and the economy on display here is underlined via a series of recurring set-ups that emphasise the monotony of Katherine’s life. Locked-off compositions give way to handheld as she walks the moors, to which she has access only when the men are away. The rest of the time she spends inside sitting on a chaise, staring into space.
Her relationship with Sebastian provides some excitement, but is ultimately less interesting than the one between Katherine and her maid. Birch’s 2014 two-hander Little on the Inside was set inside a women’s prison, and Katherine and Anna occupy a world at least as circumscribed. When Katherine asks her about her home, Anna says she hardly remembers what that is. But instead of offering mutual succour, the two castaways snipe. Anna pours scalding water over Katherine’s back in the bath. Told it’s too hot, she replies that Katherine’s skin is too cold. Katherine lets Anna be humiliated by her father-in-law for misplacing bottles of Fleurie, rather than own up to drinking them herself.
Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled, another study of corseted confinement, has come in for criticism over its omission of a black female slave, present both in the original 1966 novel and Don Siegel’s 1971 adaptation. In Lady Macbeth, race is both present and not. Oldroyd and his casting director Shaheen Baig have cast dark-skinned actors as maids and stable boys, but also as gentlewomen; Teddy’s grandmother (Golda Rosheuvel) has no compunction in shooing Sebastian from the house, chiding him for his presumption.
But this is a world in which racial epithets are never uttered, even by masters looking to abase their servants. Whether that is progressive or a different kind of erasure becomes clearer during the film. Anna emerges as the film’s most tragic figure, treated unjustly, but remote, and quite literally robbed of a voice. We glimpse her in private only once – lying on her bed, in the dark, screaming soundlessly.
Harry Windsor is a critic for the Hollywood Reporter and is the former editor of Inside Film Magazine.