Costume dramas have this reputation for being very proper, restrained affairs that usually deal with the same handful of themes over and over again. No one would every deny this – when you see a film set pre-1900 filled with women in elaborate dresses and servants rushing silently through large halls, you get a very particular idea of the sort of story you’re about to be told. Lady Macbeth – gowns, estates, Shakespearean title and all – subverts these expectations with abandon. This film, unbelievably a debut feature from theater director William Oldroyd, is surprising at every turn, ramping up its sexy, violent narrative at every opportunity until its bold conclusion.
Transplanting the Russian novella Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk to a rather Brontë-esque England, Lady Macbeth follows Katherine (Florence Pugh), newly moved in with her new husband (Paul Hilton) and father-in-law (Christopher Fairbank), both of whom are more tolerant of than enthusiastic about her presence. After her husband leaves for business, she meets Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), a sexually aggressive stablehand with whom she quickly begins a whirlwind affair. As she continues to spend time with Sebastian and her husband’s absence grows longer, her transgressions as the wife of a rich landowner become more and more bold, to the discomfort and eventual horror of her reserved servant Anna(Naomi Ackie).
Lady Macbeth lives and dies with its central performance by Florence Pugh, last seen in 2014’s The Falling, and she’s certainly delivered here. It’s often quite a restrained performance, in keeping with the required manners of the film’s setting, but there are moments where Katherine’s personality shines through, be it through a cheeky glance, a tender moment with Sebastian, or, in one scene, a miserably drunken attempt at a proper dinner with her father-in-law. Pugh in these scenes feels quite natural, in stark contrast in scenes such as those with her unloving husband, embodying the two-faced nature of her reality, living one life bound by decorum and another free to chase her desires.
And chase desire she does. What begins in the film as a need to nap in the afternoon and wander the fields out of doors, simple freedoms unavailable to her until her husband takes his leave, becomes a ravenous appetite for sex and drink, and eventually even more. It’s quite an edgy take on its subject matter – Katherine goes from quite easy to root for in her defiance of restrictive, patriarchal standards to more than a bit terrifying and cruel. The film seems deceptively straightforward at first, but becomes more complicated in its politics and ethics as the film nears the multiple moral event horizons at its conclusion, turning its entire genre (the costume drama as well as the gothic romance) on its head.
Ultimately, Lady Macbeth is a successful and commanding feature debut from Oldroyd, put together with thoughtfulness and vision not common even in more experienced directors. It’s a rather spare film, favoring static shots and simple framing, but such a style complements its bold and blunt storytelling. This is an uncommonly exciting film, not only on its own merits but also for the potential it signals for its director and stars: Pugh, along with Jarvis and Ackie. Lady Macbeth may end on a wickedly cruel down note, but things are looking up for those involved with it.
Lady Macbeth is in UK cinemas from 28th April 2017