“Perhaps a little more time indoors will do.”
Lady Macbeth is an intoxicatingly prickly affair, the kind of movie that surprises you by never becoming exactly what you expect. Its Shakesperan title suggests one thing and 19th-century setting suggests another, yet William Oldroyd’s astoundingly accomplished feature directorial debut is a stunning display of vitriol filmmaking and cold-hearted cynicism. I sincerely mean those both in the best way possible. Anchored mightily by the courageous and ferocious lead performance from newcomer Florence Pugh, beautifully naturalistic rural England backdrops and beautifully naturalistic cinematography, Lady Macbeth is quite assuredly a tale of sound and fury, but it’d be idiotic to suggest that it signifies nothing.
In the year 1865, on the outskirts of rural England, young Katherine (Pugh) is recently married to a brutish older man she doesn’t love (or hardly even know) named Alexander (Paul Hilton). A frigid, sexless marriage which they bare, Katherine is quietly grief-stricken and sadly complacent, forced to never leave their estate and to maintain a strict schedule under his rigid, mostly unseen guidance, but when Alexander departures from their lavish estate for an extended period of time, Katherine grows resourceful and resilient, namely through a ravenous love affair she forms with one of the household’s servants, the handsome, defiant Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis). Guarded only by her terrified loyal housemaid Anna (Naomi Ackie), Katherine grows defiant and viciously self-minded, with many left stunted (or worse) in her wake.
Like Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antionette with a vicious, unrelenting dark side, or King Lear with a death wish, Lady Macbeth doesn’t merely leave no stone unturned nor leave any punch pulled; it shocks, suspends and shockingly satisfies you with its rigorously, remarkably daring execution. Based on the Nikolai Leskov novel Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District and adapted for the screen by Alice Birch, Oldroyd’s film spellbinds you with its diligently unflinching approach. From the fearless performances to the fantastically minimalistic filmmaking approach from Oldroyd’s graceful hand, Lady Macbeth might scare some people away with its potentially unlikable characters, uncomfortable plot turns and emboldened and slightly more modern stylistic choices, but for many, that’ll add to Lady Macbeth‘s deliciously twisted fun. Pugh, of course, is key to the filmmaking’s overwhelming success. Her strong-minded, boldly unflinching lead performance is one of the ages, and hopefully the start of a very promising, exciting cinematic career. Her vulnerability is stunning and her versatility is simply remarkable. Very few actors could command the screen at such an age with such rigor and resolve, but she is one of those few.
What truly makes Lady Macbeth captivating, however, is not merely its braveness and prideful assurance. Rather, it’s that Lady Macbeth channels and funnels those bold aesthetics into something that does feel this relevant and revealing, even with its period setting and its otherwise stuffy details. Forget the well-made, well-acted but ultimately somewhat underwhelming My Cousin Rachel; Lady Macbeth is truly the paranoid character period piece which we needed in 2017. It’s not without its occasional faults, of course. Its shock factor might play as a little tasteless to some, though it ultimately is more effective than not. Its dutiful pacing might not be everyone’s cup of tea, though it’s often surprising to see how entertaining Lady Macbeth can be in the very right moments. Lady Macbeth is a powerfully well-executed English fable that’ll leave you floored and flustered, bewildered and bewitched. It’s one of the year’s best surprises.