Before the viewing, a friend said to me that ‘intelligent people when bored can be dangerous’. This statement kept returning in my mind as we watched William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth, the British director’s confident debut and adapted by Alice Birch from Nikolai Leskov’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensky. For at the cold heart of the film lies a highly intelligent, ambitious woman who is stifled by a patriarchal world full of inadequacy and aggrandisement. From Leskov’s 1865 novel, Oldroyd and Birch bring out the essence of one of Shakespeare’s infamous women yet the real revelation is the young actor in the leading role. A deceptively manipulative and chilling Florence Pugh, whose quiet, subversive energy makes Lady Macbeth a darkly riveting watch.
In 19th century Northumberland, a young Catherine Lester (Pugh) is sold-off through marriage to a disinterested, repressive husband (Paul Hilton) who regards her little more than property. Locked inside his family home and into the obligations of wifehood, Catherine joins the carefully arranged and lavish furniture alongside the formalities of her new role. Everything has order and place in the Lester’s otherwise sparse and Puritanical home and Oldroyd’s direction and cinematography locks everything into place. The recurring scene of Catherine’s maid Anna (Naomi Ackie) waking her; the tightening of corset strings and aggressive brushing of knotted hair; the rigid lines of the room in the frame, almost oppressively symmetrical; the tedium of quiet and distinctly startling indoor noises. This is a world as suffocating and unyielding as a preserved stately home- passionless. But the dusty air is also thick with hostility, something emphasised by Birch’s stark and bitter dialogue, delivered mainly by her husband’s father (a reliably vicious Christopher Fairbank) and through the cast’s dour Northern accents.
Not only does Catherine long to be free, of course, but there is unmistakably boredom on her face. Her eyelids droop at the table, she excuses herself from dinner, she rests almost irritably on a plush, upholstered settee. When her husband and his father leave the Lester home on their own affairs, Catherine has the opportunity to act as she pleases. Flowing red hair soon down and casually clad, she takes to the moors and feels the wind on her face, as free on the Northumbria heath as Bronte’s Cathy in Wuthering Heights. It also affords her a chance to assert herself within a house full of mostly male servants who she quickly brings to heel when Anna is humiliated. Her eye catches roguish, stable-lad Sebastien (Cosmo Jarvis) and she draws him into her bedroom to begin a secretive affair that feels oddly passionless and for Catherine’s gratification. Content in ruling the household, the two Lester patriarchs more than meet their match when they return. They soon realise that Catherine will go to any lengths to preserve herself and her desires.
Pugh is an incredible but understated tour de force in this role, her youth and soft features betraying a ferocity of will and calculation which lurks beneath. There is also a sly defiance to her, small mocking smiles and repeating that she will only ‘try’ to consummate her marriage. Even at the beginning, sold, stripped and humiliated as she is on her wedding night, Pugh never makes this character feel utterly dominated and victimised by the patriarchs. Her subversive energy is evident from the very opening shot, her veiled head turning away over her shoulder from farce of the nuptial vows. While it percolates in the earlier scenes, what grows is her presence of authority and later of indomitable determination. Her will to not merely survive but have everything privileged to men in this world has a seductive, engaging quality of its own. We come to embrace and relish her plotting and success. Despite the meticulous period detail, the stiff postures and heavily-laden costumes, Pugh emanates a modern sensibility that upsets that sense of order. You can see it when she retorts back to the father, her open inebriation and her lapse in posture during one dinner scene. Like the grotesque cat that capers around the back of the frame, Pugh dissents, overcomes and later goes to deadly lengths to stand above the world that has confined her. Such an assured performance allows for us to see the irony completely when she dresses Sebastien and tells him he is ‘master of the house’. A sustained mid-shot of her during the precarious final scene, her arms poised and her face transparently showing her working through her scheming, exemplify her skill as showing much without needless elaboration.
It is captivating leading performance, supported by an equally effective supporting cast. While we feel Fairbank and Hilton get their just desserts, Ackie and Jarvis are demonstrably victims to Catherine’s determination to preserve herself. As has been commented elsewhere, the casting of actors of colour in whitewashed British period drama has stirred some discussion about the industry and an equally whitewashed historical record that has too often ignored accounts like David Olusoga’s Black and British, Peter Fryer’s Staying Power, to name only a few in the voluminous scholarship, and the archival photographs of Paul Gilroy’s Black Britain and the National Portrait Galleries’ Black Chronicles. Oldroyd joins Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights and Amma Asante’s Belle as one of the few British period drama films featuring people of colour in supporting roles rather than in the background (if they appear at all), though one should less praise Oldroyd than indict the ignorance and racism of the British cultural industry. There are racial implications to Catherine’s treatment of both Anna and Sebastien, though these appear incidental rather than a pointed critique. The appearance of black gentry in Agnes (Golda Roushevel) and Teddy (Anton Palmer) pronounce divisions of class as opposed to race. In short, it is refreshing nod to historical fidelity and a break from the sustained monopoly for white actors and a ‘whites-only’ history but offers very little in the more serious struggle of representation. While her role is no Barbary from Toni Morrison’s Desdemona, Ackie successfully gives us a strained but sympathetic presence in Anna, another young woman caught and beaten down by the cruelty of class-based, patriarchal England. She is a foil to Catherine’s one-woman mission to independence and little in the way of genuine sisterhood develops between them. Jarvis’ performance might be a little forced in certain scenes, but again his laddish, mischievous eagerness breaks down into horror and contrition convincingly.
In my view, the essence of Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth is her ability to drive Macbeth- to do what he can’t. The Lady’s will, her desires and needs aren’t necessarily given a context in Shakespeare’s tragedy but Lady Macbeth offers one: a world full of masculine sound and fury, aptly ‘signifying nothing’ and the denigration and wasting of an intelligent human being who does everything she can to survive and thrive. As Pugh takes her walk at the film’s climax, I felt goosebumps rise on my skin at her mendacity and the interior hollowness that she’d developed. This is an impressive, moody but chilling debut from Oldroyd and a stand-out performance from a hopefully upcoming young actor. Finally, Lady Macbeth is centre-stage in her own tragedy.