Silence is deafening in the isolated landscape of Lady Macbeth; William Oldroyd’s exquisite feature-length debut, which renders a simply unforgettable antihero within its purposive quietness. This ruthless, visceral, and wickedly subversive period piece lacks any input from The Bard, instead screening like a piano-wire-tight thriller as if penned by the Brontë sisters. It is an alarming film – one which refuses to extinguish any of the gruelling psychological and physical punishment – yet there is a bespoke beauty to all the callousness. Audacious in form, tone, and ideology, it’s an admirably pitiless work, and one of the year’s very best, too.
Oldroyd’s drama opens with a marriage; one forced upon teenage Katherine (Florence Pugh), who is to take the hand of a man more than twice her age. Coarse and contempt, he is a cruel chap made crueler thanks to the presence of her unbearable father-in-law (Christopher Fairbank); rendering their loveless union with an additional sheen of sorrow. We follow Katherine’s mundane day-to-day existence inside the 19th century manor: she wakes, wanders, doses on the sofa, and prepares herself for an evening of shivering as she stands to attention whilst her impotent other attempts to pleasure himself. Soon enough, the horrible father-son double-act must depart for London, gifting her an unusual amount of freedom within the residency, and she begins a carnal love affair with Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis) – a rugged groomsman – with whom she becomes obsessed with. The pair’s passion quickly transcends into a catalogue of corruption, eventually leading to devastating consequences.
Adapted from Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 novel “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District”, dramatist Alice Birch has shed the pulp and the noise; shifting the action from Russia to rural Northumberland, and in doing so texturises an entirely sparse and entirely absorbing tale. This minimalist text ensures that dialogue is fractured, whilst body language is heightened. Her prose expertly mirror the cold, stark environment we are restricted to, ensuring each draw of breath feels authentic and purposeful. At a brisk 89 minutes, not even a mere frame is wasted on either Birch or director Oldroyd’s part. Curating a mixture of controlled long-takes and wides, with breathless shaky-cam and rapid pans, this is a fantastically assured debut; showcasing not only his technical finesse, but understanding for what Lady Macbeth represents as a work of cinematic fiction: it is a classic story remodelled and recharged for a postmodern viewership. A Victorian noir – fragrant and uncompromising – yet somehow both traditionalist and contemporary. The juxtaposition of such vastly different styles is a mean feat for any filmmaker, but to establish such dexterity on the first time round is thunderously impressive.
Many of the wider aesthetic choices are equally admirable, namely the finite usage of music. With so few personas occupying such a grand set, every single sound here is amplified. The brushing of hair, the pitter-patter of footsteps on the stairwell, the corrosive creaking of window shutters and doors. The world of Lady Macbeth screams, and yet you just can’t hear it. In many ways, the house is symbolic of Katherine herself: she is so much larger and louder than what we see, or what we believe. Her isolation should be enough to silence, but eventually the façade will shatter, and the volume will savagely increase. The very few moments which are occupied by an orchestral score screen with unexpected majesty and grace, and are ironically paired with sequences of torment or anguish.
Perhaps the grandest achievement however is that of Pugh, who delivers a brilliantly calculated central performance. Her monstrous, complex, and utterly enveloping protagonist is a work of art in itself; a fleshed and weathered portrait of pain, psychosis, and pathos. Throughout the first act, the audience are immediately drawn to her suffering – we care for her, and will her on to break the restrictive chains choking her life. By the time we enter the third, an entirely different idea has emerged – she is unruly, venomous, maniacal. We still care, and we are undoubtedly attached to her lethal charisma which shimmers throughout, but the tables have drastically turned. The confidence and coordination of Pugh’s screen turn is utterly majestic, and surely ranks amongst the finest dramatic showcases of 2017 thus far. Her Katherine is a storm trapped in a teacup, and with each stir of the spoon, becomes more and more agitated.
Oldroyd has established himself as a rigorous voice which deserves to be heard, and he’s certainly made a star of young Pugh. This superlative opener tackles themes of race, class, crime, gender, and everything in between with such precision that you’ll wonder how it crams so much into such a understated, nuanced piece. Lady Macbeth is quite simply extraordinary cinema: pertinent, disarming, and downright unmissable.
Lady Macbeth is out from today (Friday 28th April) in select UK cinemas.