This starkly beautiful film is based not on Shakespeare, but on an 1865 Russian novella, “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk.”
In the opening shots of “Lady Macbeth,” a bride (Florence Pugh) gazes upward through the mist of her veil, looking lovely, quietly curious and very young. In its final shots, she sits on a mustard-yellow couch in her husband’s home, her position precisely centered, her gaze as unyielding and dark as the heavy wooden furniture in the room. In the world of the film, not very much time has passed, but this young woman has become very, very old.
William Oldroyd’s brooding, mesmerizing drama, set in 19th-century rural England, isn’t Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” (it’s based on an 1865 Russian novella, “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk”), but it explores a similar kind of ruthlessness. (One bloody shot seems an homage to the Bard’s haunting line “What, will these hands ne’er be clean?”). Katherine (Pugh) becomes bored and lonely after her unconsummated marriage to a wealthy, bitter older man (Paul Hilton). She begins a passionate affair with a handsome young farmhand (Cosmo Jarvis) on the estate, and things turn dark from there — very dark indeed.
Oldroyd, in his film debut, shows a remarkable confidence: There’s no background music and little dialogue; instead, we hear the wind whipping through the fields like an angry banshee, and the click of Katherine’s teeth as she clamps her mouth shut, presumably in order to make a sound in the endless silence of her new home. And the images we see have a stark beauty, with the actors framed like daguerreotype photographs, staring into that unhopeful horizon.
Movie Review ★★★½
‘Lady Macbeth,’ with Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis, Paul Hilton, Naomi Ackie, Christopher Fairbank. Directed by William Oldroyd, from a screenplay by Alice Birch, based on the novella “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk” by Nikolai Leskov. 89 minutes. Rated R for some disturbing violence, strong sexuality/nudity, and language. SIFF Cinema Uptown, Lincoln Square, Seattle 10 (21+).
Pugh, a young newcomer with just a tiny handful of film credits, gives a performance of rare ferocity. We watch this Lady-Macbeth-of-the-moors as her soul hardens, like ice on a pond. Laced into her cage-like hoop skirt and tightly bound hair, she sits alone, pondering what she has become. The blood is washed away, but its stain remains. She doesn’t speak. She doesn’t need to.
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