William Oldroyd’s fierce feature debut feels like Victorian noir, a twist on a genre probably invented by Shakespeare in the first place. It could well open up a dark new avenue in the bonnets-and-bows world of classic literary adaptation. His movie does an awful lot with a limited budget. It is smart, sexy, dour: qualities that are weaponised by a lethally charismatic lead performance from Florence Pugh as the eponymous, unrepentant killer. She is both sphinx and minx. “You have no idea of the damage you can cause,” her enraged father-in-law splutters at her. Actually, he’s the one with no idea.
Dramatist and screenwriter Alice Birch has adapted Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 novel Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, itself of course inspired by Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and adapted by Shostakovich in 1934 as an opera – the work which famously infuriated Stalin – and by Andrzej Wajda as a film, Siberian Lady Macbeth, in 1962. Oldroyd’s new movie version, shot with clarity and verve by cinematographer Ari Wegner, retains all of this story’s subversive sexiness, making changes to the narrative, bringing in or rather drawing out themes of abuse, violence, race and class. Cleverly, it gives us enigmatic backstory hints that may or may not help explain the sudden direction change the film takes in its third act, leading to a denouement of toxic ingenuity. And of all it driven by the sensuality and rage of Pugh’s performance.
The film transplants the action from Russia to the English north east of the 19th century. Pugh plays Katherine, a beautiful young woman who has been married off to Alexander (Paul Hilton), the morose and sexually inadequate son of a wealthy mine owner, Boris (Christopher Fairbank). It is Boris who rules the roost and gloweringly insists on Katherine being a demure and submissive wife. As for Alexander, his face is not even revealed to us until the unwatchably catastrophic wedding night: he is essentially weak, bullied and victimised by his monstrous father.
With both men absent for long periods, mutinous Katherine is imprisoned in this stark, cold manor house in the middle of the moor. Refusing to be broken in spirit, she retreats first into dreary sleepiness, then drinking, then taking an interest in Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), the sexy, truculent young estate worker. Sebastian is of mixed race, and housemaid Anna, played with intelligent subtlety by Naomi Ackie, is black. Their presence together, and their shifting personal loyalties, create complex crosscurrents of power with the white ruling class to which Katherine’s allegiance is strained. Anna is also almost entirely mute, and the movie tacitly invites us to wonder about the pre-existing conditions of which this could be a symptom.
This Lady Macbeth is reminiscent of Pascale Ferran’s Lady Chatterley (2006) and Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights (2011) – in which Paul Hilton played Mr Earnshaw. There are similar ways in which racial difference is rendered visible and turned into a new source of tension. The house itself is a potent character. We are not given a clear establishing shot of what it looks like from the outside, in the traditional style; we are just aware of its gloomy prison-like interior. You can almost feel the bone-chilling draught as you hear the incessant creak and squeak of floorboards, and doors opening and closing, like an empty church. It is a world without comfort, without upholstery, and a world in which movement is readily audible and easily monitored. It feels like a vital act of defiance when Sebastian and Katherine have loud sex on the prim marital bed, making the frame rattle, judder and grind, pretty well getting the woodwork to splinter.
As Katherine, Pugh has the vaulting ambition of Shakespeare’s character (a single line, “It is done”, pays homage to the great ancestor), also the Flaubertian yearning of the passionate woman subjected to the bourgeois tyranny of wifehood, as well as the modern noir obsession and criminal daring that begins to assume its own momentum. Katherine has cunning and a talent for survival. She starts out Madame Bovary, and winds up Mr Ripley. Pugh gets so much dumb insolence, so much delicious sly contempt into the word “sir”, which is addressed to her hatchet-faced menfolk.
When Alexander returns to the house after his prolonged absence, seething with neurotic rage at her simple fleshly presence, he accuses his dissolute wife of looking “fatter”. Actually, it is more that the disc of Pugh’s face is now defiantly turned to him and us in all its serene untroubled entirety, like a full moon.
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