Lady Macbeth (2016) Blu Ray (Altitude) starring Florence Pugh
Not the one from Shakespeare
In this adaptation of Nicolai Leskov’s novel Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Florence Pugh plays Katherine, a young woman living in 19th century England who is sold into marriage with a wealthy but mean aristocrat named Alexander (Paul Hilton), who lives in a large country house with his equally unpleasant father Boris (Christopher Fairbank).
The pair boss her around like they do their servants, and expect her to remain confined to the house - two things this headstrong lady is clearly uncomfortable with. To make matters worse, Alexander has some clear dysfunctions in the bedroom. When the latter has to leave suddenly to attend what his father claims is a fire at his mill, Katherine sees the opportunity to take a few liberties. She starts venturing outside to wander the ground, and after a while stumbles on a group of Alexander’s men harassing her maid Anna (Naomi Ackie) in the stables. She reprimands the men - but pays some unusually specific attention to their ringleader, Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis).
That night, Sebastian forces himself into her room - and onto her. While she initially puts up a fight, a fiery passion quickly erupts within her and she pushes him onto her bed to make love to him. Their torrid affair is initially unknown to the household, but Anna quickly notices. When their goings-on become more widely known, Katherine finds that the best way to protect her newfound happiness is to resort to murder.
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Lady Macbeth starts off by making us empathise with a young woman who, in an era when she is expected to be subservient due to her gender and social status, is subjected to some truly cold, psychologically abusive treatment at the hands of two men. Shots are static and deliberate, with uneasy stillness and silence emphasised, allowing the discomfort she feels to sink in on the viewer.
It leaves the viewer craving for justice to be done. However, as the film goes on her character steps down a progressively darker path in the manner of Breaking Bad’s Walter White. It’s gradually unveiled what she is capable of, and eventually becomes clear that she’s much further from redemption than even Alexander and Boris are shown to be at the outset. She becomes increasingly psychopathic as the story goes on, a fact which is cannily emphasised by the behaviour of the other characters around her more than by her own. While they are reduced to irrevocable wrecks by the trail of destruction she leaves in her wake, she always regains her composure.
Nature or nurture?
On the other side of the coin (nurture rather than nature), there are external factors which have clearly pushed her into wickedness, namely the lack of freedom she has been given to map out her own life, and her overwhelming exposure to the pure sexual passion she experiences with the swarthy Sebastian. Anna describes her, at one point, as “a dog who has been tethered too long”. Florence Pugh’s detailed performance occasionally betrays a small sense of regret on her face, even if it’s only fleeting. She also has a natural flair for acting out sex scenes that makes them seem genuinely sexy - something that’s frankly all too rare in cinema.
While Lady Macbeth has been made with an incredibly low budget (£500,000), it’s impressive because of the way it makes so much with so little: sound plays a more important role than visuals in many scenes: in one particularly chilling scene a dramatic death takes place entirely behind a blocked-off door, and its impact relies on it being heard offscreen and from being reacted to by Katherine in a hilariously nonchalant manner.
It’s an ice-cold chilling, atmospheric, suspenseful, erotic and blackly funny movie. One thing bothers me though: where did that cat disappear to after the first half?
Runtime: 89 mins
Dir: William Oldroyd
Script: Alice Birch, based on a novel by Nicolai Leskov
Starring: Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis, Paul Hilton, Naomi Ackie, Christopher Fairbank, Golda Rosheuvel
Blu Ray Audio-Visual
While the visuals are too austere to act as a poster boy for the Blu Ray format, everything is clean and the muted colours are subtly impressive. The film’s superb 5.1 DTS HD MA sound is more crucial to its overall impact.
Florence Pugh, Alice Birch and William Oldroyd talk about their experiences with the production, with Florence being arguably the most entertaining of the three. She reveals how shocked she was during the horse shooting scene, as it was an actual horse actor trained to drop at the sound of the gun. A bruise seen on her leg during one shot was real; she got it from accidentally walking into a chest of drawers. She also ate plenty of Haribos and humbugs during the shoot as “pick me ups”, leaving the latter stashed away in various drawers.
Florence and Will Interview
This 26-minute interview with the lead actress and director is interesting enough to spare the time to watch. William reveals that he researched into 19th century England and found it to be more diverse than many period dramas portray it as, so the casting was deliberately left open to different ethnicities. Florence was only 19 when she was cast, which makes her mature performance all the more remarkable. She reveals that she didn’t see her character as a villain - and this really comes across on film as we sympathise with her despite her heinous on-screen actions.
Filmmaker Q & A from the V & A
This time Alice Birch, William Oldroyd and Florence Pugh are joined by costume designer Holly Waddington. William reveals that the paintings of Vilhelm Hammershøi inspired the film’s austere look, while Alice tells us that the original ending of the Leskov text - which was set in Siberia - wouldn’t have been practical when the adaptation relocated to Northeastern England.
One audience member asks what happens to the cat (see my comment in the review above). Florence jokingly retorts that it had been made into a scarf, while William reveals that they had originally shot scenes of Boris’s voice coming from the cat for the latter part of the film - but this idea was scrapped as it (unsurprisingly) looked ridiculous.
It’s a serviceable selection of extras, but it is marred by an annoying feature that some Blu Ray distribution companies insist on: trailers that run before we reach the main menu. Hitting the “Next” button several times does get tiresome.
It’s an engrossing study of female repression and resultant psychopathy, and has enough subtle nuances to make it highly re-watchable and thus ideal for purchase for home viewing. We shouldn’t have to skip through trailers to see it though.