UK (2017) Dir. William Oldroyd
Not directly a take on Shakespeare’s legendary play but an adaptation of the 1865 Russian novella Lady Macbeth Of Mtsensk by Nikolai Leskov, which carries echoes of the bard’s work. Either way, it’s about a woman who strikes a blow for feminism but doesn’t know when to stop.
In 19th century rural England, Katherine (Florence Pugh) is a young woman sold into a loveless marriage with the slightly older Alexander Lester (Paul Hilton). They live on the estate of Alexander’s father Boris (Christopher Fairbank) where Katherine’s movements are restricted to inside the home, her sole duty being to sire an heir for her husband, which proves difficult when Alexander shows no sexual interest in his wife at all.
When Alexander and Boris are both away together Katherine leaves the house to inspect the grounds and discovers the stable hands abusing housemaid Anna (Naomi Ackie). Katherine finds herself attracted to one of them Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis) and they begin a torrid affair. Word of this however reaches the outside and an angry Boris returns to confront Katherine about her behaviour, leading the unhappy woman to strike back.
First time director William Oldroyd has chosen an ambitious text to debut with and overall he has done a good job with it. Period dramas are usually something experienced hands work towards since they require a certain panache to make credible that younger people tend to lack. It’s not all about the costumes and flowery language.
That said, the cynicism prevalent in the film’s bleak tone is very contemporary, not to mention the multi-ethnic casting of Anna the black maid and Sebastian the half-cast lover. Later in the film two more coloured people arrive which adds an interesting perspective to Alexander’s tastes in women and might explain why he did not appear to fancy Katherine.
It’s a difficult film to categorise – part bodice ripper, part classical drama and part dark thriller. The first element is soon evident with Katherine getting naked twice inside the first 10 minutes and the affair with Sebastian spawning two energetic but not explicit sex scenes before the 30-minute mark! The second is the main constant of the entire film whilst the third gathers pace in the second act.
Alexander is an entitled bully and orders Katherine around as if she was a slave, showing no emotion toward her yet demands her devoted attention at all times. Boris is an equally dyspeptic pious brute with all the charm of a wasp’s nest, concerned only with becoming a grandfather to a male heir.
Stuck inside the reverberating starkness of the estate’s empty rooms would drive a deaf person mad and it is abundantly clear Katherine is hardly emollient if she feels wronged, not that such defiance is appreciated in this austere household. The appeal of Sebastian might just be the classic “bit of rough” since their first meeting comes when he is openly disrespectful to Katherine and is the one who makes the first move.
Boris’ return marks the actual turning point of the story, his unfathomably ignorant logic of berating Katherine for not being pregnant when Alexander has been away for months, and the beating he gives Sebastian triggers the vengeful, mutinous side of Katherine’s personality. Her first act frightens poor Anna so deeply that she goes mute, which may prove useful for Katherine later on.
With a brisk run time of 87 minutes the story is rushed along and the choppy editing abets the narrative skips in terms, sometimes distorting the time frame. The script by Alice Birch shows awareness of this, focusing on being salient and avoiding lumbering exposition, keeping the viewer on track with each passing development, and there are plenty of those.
Katherine’s role as the sympathetic heroine is laid out from the opening frame, a nervous bride struggling to keep up with the disembodied voice of Boris’ bellowing of a hymn that is unknown to her. Over the course of the next hour she effectively becomes queen of the castle but it comes at a price, least of all being the audience’s emotional support.
Morally, adultery is wrong but if Katherine is unhappy in her abusive marriage does this make it okay? And a later revelation involving a young half-coloured ward Teddy (Anton Palmer) shifts the blame of infidelity to Alexander, but he is a man so apparently this is okay. And Teddy’s mother was of similar gentrified stock unlike Sebastian who is a mere servant.
In the 19th century gender politics were not so easily debated, nor were class matters and now we have another taboo issue of interracial relationships. This would be the creation of Birch and not Leskov, but it works extremely well in spreading the net over relevant social concerns for modern audiences to reflect on how far we’ve come and how little has actually changed.
Katherine may have been inspired by Shakespeare but in the hands of Birch and Oldroyd she is something of a proto feminist and the third integral ingredient in making her such a compelling character, for better and for worse, is Florence Pugh. At just 20 years-old Pugh carries the entire film, already establishing a poised and alluring presence, exuding a confidence and maturity beyond her years.
Production values are exquisite, the authenticity of the set pieces belying the modest budget, and the delightful and immersive photography capturing the essence of humble 19th century living. My only gripe is the sound design – the dialogue is often lost in the reverberation of the spartan chambers or by the mumbling cast, and without HOH subtitles not everything was clear to me.
Oldroyd’s ambition has paid off in his first film and it will be interesting to see how he follows up such an assured and engaging work as Lady Macbeth, but it is Florence Pugh who comes out of this with the most momentum and deservedly so, although sadly I doubt the Oscar’s will recognise her commanding turn here.