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Lady Macbeth - Review

Lady Macbeth

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 4 out of 5

FLORENCE Pugh emerges as a leading lady to watch in Lady Macbeth, an unflinching tale of lust and murder in Victorian Northumberland.

Inspired by Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 novella Lady Macbeth of Mtensk District, rather than the Shakespearean tale that is more synonymous with its name, the film is a bleak offering from William Oldroyd that begins dark and continues to get darker. As a result, it might not play to all tastes. But it remains a fiercely compelling and often shocking piece of work that lingers, if not haunts, for some time afterwards.

Sold into a marriage she doesn’t want, we first witness Pugh’s Lady Macbeth, or Katherine, being asked to disrobe by her husband (Paul Hilton’s Alexander), before being left to stand naked, and in the pitch dark, for the remainder of the night. Boredom and further humiliation becomes the order of her day, until Alexander is called away.

Seizing her freedom, Katherine pursues some kind of happiness in the form of sexual freedom by seducing her inquisitive groomsman James (musician-turned-actor Cosmo Jarvis), thereby embarking on an explicit affair that even her partly sympathetic, yet equally judgemental handmaid Anna (Naomi Ackie) can’t ignore.

When Alexander’s ruthless father (Christopher Fairbank) returns home, however, Katherine is forced to resort to desperate measures to maintain her freedom and protect James, setting into play a series of events that take a murderous turn – and which eventually consume both James and Anna in the tragedy that unfolds.

Oldroyd’s film is high on atmospherics, whether lingering on the laboured day-to-day workings of Katherine’s pre-affair existence, or offering glimpses of the stark, unforgiving countryside surrounding her world. It gives a palpable sense of the desperation inherent in most of the female characters who occupy the film.

But while that can contribute to a slow pace, it’s Pugh who really does command the screen and pull audiences this way and that. At first, there’s sympathy for her plight. But as she becomes more and more ruthless, her actions become increasingly difficult to watch. Her desire for freedom becomes all-consuming.

In Pugh’s hands, it’s a ferocious, unforgettable journey and one that defies the period setting. For Oldroyd has very much put a modern spin on the tale, lending his central character a feisty determination that feels very contemporary. And it’s that decision [and subsequent performance] that gives the film its power to grip throughout its tightly wound 89 minutes.

The supporting cast contributes, too, with Ackie particularly effective, and similarly conflicted, as handmaid Anna, while Jarvis does a convincing job of reversing expectation so as to appear as much a victim of Katherine’s scheming as those she deliberately targets.

The result is a film that is difficult to forget, once witnessed, even if the cold-hearted nature of proceedings can be emotionally distancing. It’s a striking piece of work – no matter how cold it becomes.

Certificate: 15
Running time: 89mins
UK Release Date: April 28, 2017