Review: Florence Pugh is a breakthrough in the cold and calculated costume thriller ‘Lady Macbeth’
Exact and exacting, made with formidable skill and unwavering focus, “Lady Macbeth” is a film that demands to be admired and cares little if you actually like it.
A cold and unnerving tale of the twin deranging powers of passion and oppression, it’s a 19th century costume drama impeccably made on a minuscule budget with some very modern thematic concerns in mind.
The first feature by accomplished British theater director William Oldroyd and spotlighting a breakthrough performance by 21-year-old Florence Pugh, “Lady Macbeth” is only tangentially related to the Shakespearean character.
Rather this story of a young woman who spectacularly rebels against a horrific marriage is an uncompromising adaptation by playwright Alice Birch of Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 Russian novella “Lady Macbeth of the Mitensk District,” later turned into an opera by Dmitri Shostakovich that Josef Stalin famously couldn’t stand.
Made for less than half a million dollars over 24 shooting days in a single location in Britain’s remote Northumberland region, “Lady Macbeth” has made expert use of some top below-the-line talent — including editor Nick Emerson, production designer Jacqueline Abrahams and costume designer Holly Waddington — to create its claustrophobic world.
First among equals is cinematographer Ari Wegner, who rarely moves the camera and whose spare, elegant compositions allows us to experience the emotional tension that threatens to explode out of every frame while holding everything at a remove. Which is mostly but not entirely a good thing.
Though all the skill involved tempts you to ignore it, “Lady Macbeth’s” difficulty, which it never completely overcomes, is that it asks us to form a bond of complicity with some heedlessly amoral characters who act monstrously even though they’re presented as dispassionately as specimens in a laboratory experiment. That’s a big ask.
It all begins for 17-year-old Katherine (Pugh) on the night of her wedding to the much older Alexander (Paul Hilton), the son and heir of the elderly Boris (Christopher Fairbank), a well-off mine owner.
Boris not only engineered the marriage, we soon find out he more or less bought Katherine in a deal with her father that included some unproductive land as a kind of cover.
Alexander, for his part, is a hostile cipher, a curt, dismissive bully whose contemptuous behavior on their wedding night is a shock to Katherine and to us as well, an early example of screenwriter Birch’s ability to veer toward the unexpected.
Both father and son are intent on keeping Katherine under their thumb, to all intents and purposes a prisoner not allowed to so much as leave the house or do anything while in it.
Committed to insuring that we will feel Katherine is understandable if not justified when her inevitable push-back takes place, “Lady Macbeth” depicts her as as savagely constricted within this empty life as she is ferociously tied into the corsets of the day by her distant, mysterious maid Anna (Naomi Ackie.)
Yet it is in the nature of Pugh’s performance that we can see that submissive docility is not in Katherine’s nature, that she has a strong-willed spiritedness that is only waiting for the right melodramatic moment to make itself known.
That happens when the plot contrives to conveniently take both her husband and her father-in-law away from the house at the same time.
During this period of absence Katherine discovers Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), a newly hired groomsman, as the ringleader of a sexually sadistic game being played with a compliant Anna.
A cheeky ruffian who is catnip to women and knows it, Sebastian soon makes a play for Katherine and before you can say “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” the two are involved in the most torrid of torrid affairs.
This is, obviously, a classic amour fou, a mad passion that comes out of nowhere and completely consumes both participants, and actors Pugh and Jarvis are especially good at conveying the sense of almost predatory eroticism that consumes them.
But having liberated herself, the question “Lady Macbeth” asks of its transgressive heroine is whether she will be constrained again by anything that smacks of morality, whether, as the story continues to unfold, the rage she has been forced to stifle will overwhelm everything in its path.
The mood created by Oldroyd and his collaborators is so intense you can hear a pin drop as these complications play out in Birch’s increasingly unexpected scenario.
Like it or not, we are fully involved, but this does not mean our involvement goes at all beneath the surface to a deeper, more profound place. For this undeniably accomplished and ambitious film, that remains a bridge too far.
Rating: R for some disturbing violence, strong sexuality/nudity, and language
Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes
Playing: Arclight Hollywood, Landmark West Los Angeles.
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