Deftly adapted from the 1865 Russian novella “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District” by Nikolai Leskov, with the action transposed to Victorian England, Lady Macbeth follows Katherine (Florence Pugh), a young girl trapped in a loveless marriage who embarks on an affair which leads her down a dangerous path. Think Madame Bovary gone feral and you’re halfway there.
Working off a terrific and stripped-back screenplay courtesy of Alice Birch, theatre director William Oldroyd confidently ruffles the petticoats of British period dramas, a genre whose corset-constraining tropes often rhyme with déjà-vu and overly comfortable viewing. Here, viewers are offered a taut, bracing and incredibly modern-feeling tale of liberation and revenge. For the most part, it is a one-location chamber piece that capitalises on the Northern English setting, cunningly uses negative space and symmetry, as well as a painterly aesthetic to reflect the constraining status-quo Katherine rebels against. Above all, the engrossing use of silence married with a precise sound mix make it a frequently suffocating watch. You guessed it: Jane Austen, this is not.
At the centre of Lady Macbeth is an emotionally complex character, played to perfection by Florence Pugh. Previously seen in Carol Morley‘s tragically underseen The Falling, her career-making turn as the antiheroine stands as one of the film’s biggest draws, as it not only simmers with controlled intensity but also breaks the mould of the archetypal feminine characters that populate costume dramas. Pugh makes Katherine playful, perversely enticing and believably headstrong, without resulting to predictable actorly tics. Her performance contributes in no small part to making Lady Macbeth a compelling drama and piercing parable, one which is rooted in the past and often resonating with bitter contemporary relevance. It stands alongside Francis Lee‘s God’s Own Country as one of this year’s most promising British debuts. Get thee to a multiplex.
Lady Macbeth / Directed by William Oldroyd (UK 2017), with Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis, Christopher Fairbank, Paul Hilton. Starts Nov 2.