Lady Macbeth may well be the first film I can recall that has its final shot in the actual trailer. Thankfully though, without the context, this does not detract from what is a stark, startling and surprisingly imposing period drama, which is entirely deserving of the almost universal praise it has garnered.
Directed by William Oldroyd and based on the Russian novel, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, screenwriter Alice Birch transposes the story from Siberia to the windswept moors of Victorian north-east England.
Here, Florence Pugh enters from stage left as Katherine, a young woman quite literally sold and then subsequently trapped into both a loveless marriage and the confines of a family house. Taking advantage of her husband, Alexander (Paul Hilton) and his father Boris (Christopher Fairbank) absence on business, Katherine begins to explore her new surroundings and meets an outspoken groomsman Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), embarking on a dangerously obsessive and rebellious affair.
Oldroyd’s background in the theatre is used to dramatic effect to emphasise the formality of Katherine’s constricted and constrained life. Oldroyd plants his camera, almost stage-like, though with disarming movements throughout, within and across the frame, captures the eye and melds the cinematic and theatrical worlds together. However, when Katherine breaks free so does the camera, and the passion and freedom that Katherine and Sebastian feel is evident.
This formality is continued within Pugh’s fearless performance bringing just the right amount of steeliness, stillness, and subversion to Katherine. There is no doubt that Katherine is a difficult character to like, but she unexpectedly reels you in, dragging you deeper and deeper into her obsessive spiral. As things become unhinged, you suddenly find yourself right there beside her, questioning: ‘How did we get here?’ Considering this is Pugh’s first big screen role, this is just astonishing. If this is her opening move, I cannot wait, but am also a little frightened, to see what comes next.
Silence is a strong theme throughout. With almost no score, this pushes day-to-day household noises, alongside the unforgiving wind whipping across the moor and stoic silences to the fore. This adds another eerie layer to an already confronting narrative which when combined, produces a sense of dread and uncertainty that envelops you, like a creeping Victorian fog.
Lady Macbeth is one of the films of the year, and in Pugh, a performance for the ages. While a period drama, there are clear modern day parallels and it confronts head on attitudes towards sexism, control and obsession. The amount of ground it covers in 89 minutes is almost disarming, as when the credits role, it will leave you unexpectedly breathless from the journey you have just been on. This wasn’t the film you expected when you sat down – period dramas are simply not supposed to be like this…