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Toronto: Is a repressive 19th century drama from a newbie director the most radical movie of the season?

‘Lady Macbeth’
Florence Pugh in Toronto sensation ‘Lady Macbeth’
(Toronto International Film Festival)

Ever since his “Lady Macbeth” — a 19th century re-imagining of a Russian novella about an arranged marriage-- became one of ‎the conversation pieces at the Toronto International Film Festival, director William Oldroyd has found himself having an unusual conversation.

Filmgoers who’ve seen his movie and expected (or apparently don’t know much about) William Shakespeare have been wondering what happened to Duncan, Banquo, and the rest of the gang.

“I know it sounds funny, but I’ve had people come up and say to me, ‘This isn’t anything like the play,’” Oldroyd recalled an interview. “And I have to pause and think about what to say. I mean, it’s not an adaptation of the [Shostakovich] opera either. It’s not really anything traditional.”

The director isn’t kidding.

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This is already shaping up as a film year of a particular trend: complex female characters reacting provocatively to sexual repression and assault. Movies such as “Elle,” with Isabelle Huppert,  and “Una,” with Rooney Mara, both confound simple victim narratives in ways that are honest or dangerous, depending on your point of view.

Into this crop comes the eye-popping abandon of the England-set “Lady Macbeth,” which channels its namesake character by mixing the  beneath-the-surface churn of “Downton Abbey” with the fun connivery of “A Simple Plan.” Though shot with period rigor and told with narrative economy, “Lady Macbeth” has become one of the most discussed titles amid far slicker and more modern offerings here. It has spurred acquisition talk (as this story was being published, Roadside Attractions had closed a U.S. deal), generated significant actor buzz and, maybe most important, elicited a moral debate.

What makes “Lady Macbeth” stand out is its message--or, rather, how its message is hidden.

“We set out to make what i think of as an anti-bonnet drama, but what someone called it the other day is ‘a radical drama set in the past,’ which I think is a much more accurate description,” Oldroyd, a first-time film director, said.

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“Lady Macbeth” revolves around Katherine (Florence Pugh), a young woman sold into marriage to a sour scion in the English countryside circa the 1860s. It’s clear said scion has no interest in her beyond simple humiliation, just as it’s clear he has no feelings for much else around the manor. He has soon disappeared, leaving Katherine to a large house, an uncaring father-in-law and a kind of well-manicured imprisonment.

In a startling early scene, a new stable boy first sexually humiliates Katherine’s servant and then attempts to rape Katherine herself. Rather than fight him off, however, she embarks on an affair with him.

Once the two are united, it sets into a motion a series of acts on Katherine’s part to preserve their idyll (or increase her power), her serene comportment concealing the machinations within. The film is generally interested in the roil underneath the politesse, and both Pugh’s performance and Oldroyd’s exacting shooting style are keen to maximize this contrast. Murder has never looked so much like Masterpiece Theater.

What it also doesn’t look like is Katherine. She tells us, portentously, early on, that she has a thick skin, but even that doesn’t fully hint at what she’s willing to do to protect it.

Based on Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 novella “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk” and a script from newcomer Alice Birch, “Lady Macbeth” is designed as a kind of counterpoint to so many female characters of that era.

“The notion of being trapped in an arranged marriage — there’s nothing original in that. You see it in Madame Bovary and Therese Raquin and so much literature from the period,” Oldroyd said. “It’s what Katherine does that’s so striking — rather than waste away or run away, she fights back.”

Ah, but are there ethical limits to such fighting? Much of the fest debate has centered on  how to evaluate her actions. Around this city, a group of people who’ve seen the movie will often find themselves springing into a debate, confusing those around them who haven’t seen the film. On the one hand, Katherine is taking back control, a lady hero at a time of great misogyny and repression. On the other hand, she sure is leaving a long trail of victims.

“She’s absolutely a proto-feminist hero,” Oldroyd said when asked how he viewed her. “What Alice has said is that Katherine is very difficult to like but she absolutely loves her. I think that’s well said.”

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Oldroyd is exactly the kind of discovery festivals are built for. As a fall showcase, TIFF has more than its share of established filmmakers showing off their much-hyped wares — your Oliver Stones, your Antoine Fuquas, your Denis Villeneueves.

But it also contains first-timers doing work as strong and fresh as anything the vets can manage.  At 36, Oldroyd has never made a feature before, instead focusing on plays in his native England (Ibsen at the Young Vic, e.g.) and a short that screened at Sundance a few years back. But it’s that kind of newness that perhaps catalyzed him to something this ambitious, shooting said movie (in sequence, just for added degree of difficulty) with the help of several public British filmmaking funds.

What makes Oldroyd’s work stand out is not just its moral preoccupations but way of doing so much with so little. A lot of events are happening in “Lady Macbeth” but they’re told with the barest of exposition; sometimes a few seconds of a character undertaking an action or brushing themselves off after its completion is all that’s given us to convey a full cause-and-effect. Nothing much seems to be happening, yet a whole lot is happening.

Pugh is her own discovery,  at just 19 offering a preternatural knack for both empowerment and scheming, all with a kind of black comedy. What makes her work especially notable is that she’s conveying this — in keeping with the period — using a minimum of movement and expression, performance as poker face

The actress was discovered by the “Lady Macbeth” casting director, who had also put her in “The Falling,” a 2014 dramatic mystery set in a girls’ boarding school. Pugh, who is currently teamed up with Liam Neeson on one of his Euro action romps, “The Commuter,” will be one to watch on future films.

Will she be enough to bring young people into this one? Beneath the surface is a juicy “House of Cards” parlor game, which always helps. More important, says Oldroyd, it’s not a gimmick, but a true portrayal of the warm-blooded emotions that are often forgotten in such stories.

“For a long time in our cinema I think there’s been a part of history that’s whitewashed,” he said. “This is a much more accurate reflection of what I think things were like for a lot of people in the 19th century.

“It’s nice,” he added, “that also makes it thrilling to watch.”

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On Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT


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