First Feature Competition

Adapted from Nikolai Leskov’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, first published in Dostoyevsky’s magazine Epoch in 1865, William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth promised to be a dark tale of love and deceit. This it was not. Boring rather than brooding, Lady Macbeth never truly finds its feet, despite a couple of glimmerings of hope towards its opening.

Katherine (Florence Pugh) is newly married to the son of a colliery owner, a distinctly unpleasant man who refuses either to consummate their joining or let her outside of the house to explore the grounds. Growing lethargic and often sleeping, Katherine takes the opportunity when her husband leaves for a few days, and immediately escapes the house into the beautiful scenery that surrounds. Stumbling across an uncomfortable scene of group harassment, she for some reason falls for the stable-hand, Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), who was leading the misogynistic affair of weighing a bare ‘sow’ – her own maid (Naomi Ackie). A well-worn trope of 19th century literature, the lady falling for the rugged outdoorsman feels tired here. For a good twenty minutes, Lady Macbeth transmutes into a tedious soft-core porn film, neither advancing the plot nor accomplishing anything that wasn’t achieved the first time we see them have sex. Whilst we’re eventually given a break from the naked bodies, the picture never really recovers, and remains a tiring endeavour despite not quite reaching a 90 minute runtime.

“Boring rather than brooding”

Petulant not powerful, Pugh’s Katherine is at times frustrating and at others dull, however the fault lies in the story, not her performance. Clearly capable of more, it’s just not the showcase she deserves. Yes, Lady Macbeth is adapted from a 150-year old novel, but writer Alice Birch could’ve done more to prevent it feeling dated whilst staying true to its spirit. Instead, Katherine finds new empowerment and escape from the evils of men… in the arms of another man.

There are a couple of deeply disturbing scenes that worth merit: the beating of Sebastian by Katherine’s father-in-law is visceral and distressing, but the scene in which her husband forces her to undress and face the wall is genuinely horrible. As the camera stays focussed on her back, we hear a soundscape develop just off screen of a man unwilling to touch his wife, but employing different rules for himself.

Overall, however, Lady Macbeth features a lot of Florence Pugh looking out of windows or falling asleep on chairs, whilst a tackily conceived character development occurs across the time-worn, outdated narrative. Some Russian novels of the 19th century are, with good reason, held in the highest esteem, but Birch & Oldroyd didn’t manage to find one of these.

James Baxter-Derrington


Image: William Oldroyd

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