Romantic unions are a fragile balancing act, easily knocked off course by inequality and control. Director William Oldroyd’s first feature film Lady Macbeth takes an unconventional approach to the period genre and uses it to draw a vision of a desperate reclamation of control in a doomed marriage – or at least, an attempt at one.
Florence Pugh (The Falling) is the lead character Katherine, who provides the inspiration for the familiar name in the title. An adaptation of a classic Russian novel, the story has been transferred to the windswept moors of Northern England, where Katherine has been married off to wealthy landowner Alexander (Paul Hilton, Wuthering Heights). Living trapped in a stark and drafty home, her husband shows little interest in her, whilst his tyrannical father holds a clenched fist over the house. When both leave, Katherine takes matters into her own hands, controlling timid maid Anna (Naomi Ackie) and embarking on a passionate affair with groomsman Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis).
Although it’s a period drama in setting and costume, the style of this film is designed to be minimalist and earthy in a style very different to what we’re used to. It’s closest sibling is Andrea Arnold’s 2011 Wuthering Heights, where rough nature takes centre stage over stiff manners. Highly atmospheric with barely any kind of musical score, the sounds of every action in Katherine’s restrictive environment becomes clear and claustrophobic. The camera work is particularly striking, completely static during scenes where Katherine is trapped in the house, but jumping into fluid action during her moments of freedom.
Florence Pugh, so impressive in The Falling, get more of a chance to showcase her considerable acting abilities with a role that requires her to be almost consistently present. Her character is one that will polarise audiences – highly selfish and impulsive, she commits acts that even the namesake of the film’s title might shudder at. However, she’s also a young girl who has no external guidance. This becomes most clear in her relationship with Sebastian, as she initially misreads who she should see as a dangerous man, and then becomes swept up in fierce possessiveness with nobody in a position to warn her otherwise.
Dealing the toughest brunt in this film is the servant Anna, who finds herself manipulated, humiliated and bullied into silence. In brief moments where she can be shielded from her employers, Naomi Ackie demonstrates the true unbridled pain and fury that is being constantly suppressed, and it’s a heartbreaking performance. The film doesn’t cast a outright judgement on Katherine or Sebastian however, instead letting audience members make their minds up as to the moral status of the two in the reflection of the fragile Anna.
Despite all its darkness, Lady Macbeth doesn’t forget a sense of dark humour. In that sense, it stands above 2011’s Wuthering Heights, which took itself far too seriously. This presents us with moral complexity but mixes it with a wry outlook that matches Katherine’s cynical and youthful view on her situation.
Lady Macbeth is a refreshing break from classic period dramas, bringing along the corsets and frustrated marriages but little of the traditional style. Instead, it’s highly effective in creating a wild earthiness, as well as a visceral quality that plunges us into all the unbound facets of human nature. It’s not an easy watch, but with fantastic performances and atmosphere, Lady Macbeth is completely immersive.