Lady Macbeth is period drama without the hard edges filed off; its plot lives in the spaces of illegitimacy, upstairs-downstairs romance, and single-minded ambition that are usually denied or shamed in more opulent productions. This, its nineteenth-century setting, and near total lack of extradiegetic sound invite comparisons to Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights, but Oldroyd’s debut is superior.
Florence Pugh’s Katherine is a remarkably fresh and convincing depiction of how a young woman might act after being unwillingly sold into marriage. Katherine is a queen of audacious sass, and before Lady Macbeth takes a plunge into darker territory, her refusal to kowtow to the patriarchy provides much wit and provokes appreciative laughter.
Though the sparse sets betray Oldroyd’s theatrical background, Lady Macbeth avoids the charge of staginess. Oldroyd’s technical decisions are, without exception, perfectly in tune with tone and plot. Static cameras convey Katherine’s feelings of entrapment within the bare interiors of the house, but raise the heart rate by going handheld when she escapes outside or visits the servants’ quarters. It’s no surprise, then, that she finds an outlet with groomsman Sebastian (Jarvis). What seems like a plot hole in the portrayal of their relationship is ultimately justified by twisting and subtle revelations, yet the fact that their affair seemingly begins with sexual assault giving way to consensual passion remains problematic.
Pugh’s performance begins with understatement yet the part becomes increasingly rewarding as the thorny knot of the plot gradually unravels. It’s an entrancing delight to watch.
Lady Macbeth happily bears little resemblance to most period films, and its protagonist makes even Love and Friendship’s Lady Susan look like a model of feminine decorum. Oldroyd’s final stroke of expert control is leaving the credits completely silent – consigning the audience to uncomfortably ponder the final act’s uncompromising embrace of brutality.
CAST: Florence Pugh, Christopher Fairbank, Cosmo Jarvis, Bill Fellows
DIRECTOR: William Oldroyd
WRITERS: Nikolai Leskov (based on the novel by), Alice Birch (screenplay)
SYNOPSIS: A 19th century young bride is sold into marriage to a middle-aged man.