Lady Macbeth

Lady Macbeth (2016) Screenplay by Alice Birch (based on ‘Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk’ by Nikolai Leskov). Directed by William Oldroyd.

The weather, (being spring in Tasmania) has taken a turn for the worse, so I’ve been watching lots of movies – and what better backdrop for an unashamedly Gothic drama. Lady Macbeth has been on my list since mid year, when I heard a very positive review by Mark Kermode on BBC Radio 5 Live’s Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review podcast. I don’t usually buy into movie hype, preferring to make up my own mind, but in the case of Lady Macbeth, all of it is true.

I should say that this is not a movie for the faint-of-heart and doesn’t hold back. It is by turns, breathtakingly beautiful, sensual, obsessive, passionate, brutally violent and tragic. And I loved every minute of it.

Set in 1860’s England, this is the story of Katherine, a young girl who was “purchased along with a piece of land not fit to put a cow on” by wealthy collier’s son Alexander Lester and becomes his wife. As Mrs Lester, she is forced to conform to what ladies are and how they should behave, though Alexander shows no sexual interest in her and Katherine has no interest in conforming for any man.

One of the most notable things about this film (and there are many) are the use of landscape and place. The house is cold and shuttered each night, and scenes of Katherine looking out to the surrounding forest are all the more effective as the trees are reflected in the windows that encase her. The surrounding moorland is bleak but strangely exhilarating and an opportunity for freedom for Katherine.

I was surprised to find this was William Oldroyd’s directorial feature debut, but his background is in theatre and opera direction and here, he shines. The framing and lighting are glorious and precise throughout and Oldroyd allows the actors to do their jobs without getting too much in the way. The silences and stillness tell as much as the characters’ conversations – but that is not to say that the dialogue lacks in any way. The fine screenplay by Alice Birch is an adaption of Leskov’s ‘Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk’, a 19th century work I’m not familiar with but I intend to seek out.

Overall, the sound design provides a sense of oppressive stillness in the house and there is almost no music in the entire film, relying instead on the natural soundscape. This works in tandem with the subtle direction and is a welcome relief from the many soundtracks in films that constantly tell the viewer what we’re supposed to be feeling.

The subjugation of women is a strong theme throughout the film but Katherine’s passion, which turns to obsession and finally, a twisted, steely resolve is central to the movie. The cast are without exception excellent – but Florence Pugh is utterly astonishing in the lead role.

In the final act, it would’ve been so very easy for this to descend into standard Gothic-themed melodrama, but it never does. The tragedy is too real for that.

A modern Gothic masterpiece.

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