UK Release Date: 28th April 2017
Runtime: 89 minutes
Director: William Oldroyd
Writer: Alice Birch
Starring: Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis, Naomi Ackie, Paul Hilton, Christopher Fairbank
Synopsis: A woman married off at a young age to an aggressive, but pathetic man finally finds meaning when she begins to have an affair with one of the employees of her husband’s estate.
Despite its slightly misleading title, there’s nothing Shakespearean about Lady Macbeth. The feature debut of theatre director William Oldroyd is instead based on a 19th century Russian novel, with the location transposed to the north of England. It’s an unusual and intense film, which largely eschews background music in favour of creating a rich soundscape that enhances the sense of isolation surrounding the protagonist – portrayed by rising star Florence Pugh. Ahead of a blockbuster season packed with big, noisy movies, this is something thoughtful and compelling, with real edge.
Catherine (Pugh) has been married off to wealthy Alexander (Paul Hilton), who still lives with his father Boris (Christopher Fairbank) on a vast estate in the Northumberland countryside. When her uninterested and irritable husband leaves on business, Catherine starts an affair with Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis) – one of the men who works on the land – much to the chagrin of housemaid Anna (Naomi Ackie). When her father-in-law and husband return, Catherine sees her secret life clash with her more mundane one – with violent results.
Lady Macbeth is a film powered by a tremendous central performance from Florence Pugh. The star, previously best known for her supporting role in The Falling, is every inch the leading lady here, crafting a character who is both loathsome and sympathetic. She has been trapped in isolation by the epitome of patriarchy, but chooses to fight that by way of violence, murder and manipulation. The Shakespearean allusion of the title hints at a Machiavellian leading character and that’s what we get here courtesy of Pugh’s intensely enigmatic work.
The film’s other star is the rich, compelling sound design. Director Oldroyd draws a clear contrast between the near-silent loneliness of the vast house, where even the opening of a window is clearly audible amidst the lifeless quiet, and the rural outdoors surrounding the house. Pugh’s character makes no secret of her love of the outdoors, which buzzes with life as birds sing and the wind rushes. In Lady Macbeth, the outdoors represents freedom, noise and life and the protagonist seems to be on a constant quest to bring some of that life into her mundane existence.
That drama and that life is manifested in her passionate affair with Cosmo Jarvis’s rough-and-ready farmhand, which she conducts with a noisy nonchalance. There’s never much secrecy to her actions, as if she craves the eventual conflict every bit as much as the sexual satisfaction. When chaos does eventually unfold, it’s the start of a shift into extreme darkness that turns the film into something intense and troubling. The only line of dialogue lifted from Shakespeare is a short statement delivered with chilling simplicity after an act of unspeakable violence.
Lady Macbeth is a beguiling film that creates and amplifies the isolation of its central character to tell the story of a woman driven to horrific actions. Pugh’s complex performance leads the loyalties of the audience to shift and change throughout the course of the movie, conveying the difficult circumstances of the story with terrific effect. This film deserves to make a true star of Pugh and, ahead of her big role alongside Dwayne Johnson in Fighting With My Family, this is a hell of a calling card.
Pop or Poop?
Florence Pugh gets a tremendous showcase for her rising star ability in Lady Macbeth, which is a beautifully crafted, morally ambiguous and entirely unsettling British drama from William Oldroyd. As a directorial debut, it’s assured and defiant in its creative choices and Oldroyd is unafraid to explore the true darkness of humanity when it is backed into a corner.
It’s a film that challenges our sympathies in giving us a protagonist who is simultaneously oddly relatable and pure evil.
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