Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Film Review - Lady Macbeth (15)

Through hell and high water I will follow you.
The first thing to know about Lady Macbeth is that the ferociously ambitious queen from the Shakespeare play doesn't actually feature as a character. The second is that the spirit of that formidable woman infuses every second of the running time. The protagonist Katherine runs deep under a still, brooding surface, much like the film itself. She's easy to underestimate - but only a fool, it transpires, would make that mistake.
Set in 19th Century Northumbria, Lady Macbeth introduces us Katherine, the bride in a cold and clearly arranged marriage. Trapped in a remote and austere country house, her role is as a corseted doll to an older man - mistress of the house in name only. Her husband is boorish, her father-in-law tyrannical and her prospects grim. The attentions of a maidservant only serve to reinforce her life's soul-crushing routine. Respite comes when both men are drawn from home by business, and it's then that she experiments with how she might best alter her situation. The results will stay with you a long time after the closing credits.
Based on Russian novella Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, this is a hugely impressive first feature by director William Oldroyd. In an era of 'louder is better' excess, this is a welcome exercise in stripped-back cinema. The screenplay is intelligent and spare (courtesy of another first-timer Alice Birch), with natural light and sound used throughout in service to a bleak and harsh vision. Any incidental music is saved for critical moments, with the ambient noise of rural Northumbria (and good old silence) serving to build up dramatic intensity. Indoors it's the clump of shoes on hardwood floors, clack of shutters and tying of creaking corsets that convey the extent of Katherine's oppression. Every shot counts too, the story built with economy and clear, striking visuals.
Then there's the performance of Florence Pugh in the lead.
Previously seen in The Falling with Maisie Williams, Pugh is nothing short of magnetic. Starved of dialogue in the early scenes she does most through her eyes and her stillness, and it's mesmerizing every time. Here is a girl mired in stultifying boredom, but quietly willful - craving freedom both moral and physical. It cannot be long, we feel, before she attempts on some level to break out. Christopher Fairbank and Paul Hilton do good, scowling character work as father-in-law and husband respectively. Naomi Ackie draws sympathy as hapless Afro-Caribbean maid Anna, while Cosmo Jarvis impresses as cocky stableman Sebastian. All, however, remain firmly within Pugh's orbit as her character evolves relentlessly.
Lady Macbeth is an absorbing drama, not least because of its power-plays in a world where gender, race and class all play a role. (This isolated community has one complex and fluid pecking order.) It's also got enough windswept moors and broiling passions to make Emily Bronte proud - eroticism and violence both lurk beneath its calm, threatening to assert themselves. 

As for the extent to which Katherine channels the iconic Shakespearian lady of the title - I suggest you find that out for yourself.
Ed's Verdict: Engrossing drama with a dark, compelling heroine and a surprising power to shock.

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