Sex, death and a dangerous Victorian mouseburger in Lady Macbeth

By Liam Lacey

Lady Macbeth is an odd one, a pot-boiling parable about the turning of a Victorian mouseburger into a tigress, which unfolds in a series of painterly tableaux, mixed with some hot-blooded sex and murder.

Modestly budgeted, Lady Macbeth stands out for its pristine look, self-consciously modern politics, and, mostly, the smoldering turn from 19-year-old actress, Florence Pugh.

English opera and theatre director William Oldroyd, making his film debut, and screenwriter Alice Birch have adapted Russian author Nikolai Leskov's 1865 novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. It’s a work previously adapted in Shostakovich's 1934 opera,  and a 1962 film version by Polish director, Andrzej Wajda.

Pugh, thinking dangerous thoughts in Lady Macbeth

Pugh, thinking dangerous thoughts in Lady Macbeth

Oldroyd and Birch have reclaimed Lady M for England, moving the setting to rural Northumberland, near the Scottish border. The title character, Katherine, is first seen as a young bride, who has been sold to her husband, Alexander (Paul Hilton), to bear him an heir. Alexander, domineering but sexually dysfunctional, orders her to strip and face the wall while he masturbates. Otherwise, he disappears for weeks on end. Her father-in-law, Boris (Christopher Fairbank) scolds and forbids her to go outside. 

Nor is there much for her to do indoors. A maid, Anna (Naomi Ackie), another regular victim of Boris’s insults, tends to the family's needs. Katherine grows dangerously bored.

One day Katherine finds a group of men in the barn, having hoisted the naked Anna up on a pig-weighing device, to humiliate her. The lead trouble-maker is an insubordinate groomsman named Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis); Katherine reprimands and then briefly tussles with him. He quickly guesses that Katherine is looking for some excitement.  Shortly after, an intense affair begins, which becomes more and more brazen. "Unsex me here," says Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth, preparing herself to be cruel. "Sex me right now" might be the motto of her lusty literary descendant.

Katherine's father-in-law, Boris, soon clues in and tries to put a stop to the shenanigans until Katherine stops him, permanently. The maid, Anna, in a melodramatic turn, is struck dumb in shock at her mistress's actions. Anna represents the conscience of the drama but so is a scrawny cat, which skulks about the house like an undercover detective. Some weeks after Boris is buried, his son Alexander wanders back home, having heard rumours of his wife's behaviour. Also, he says she's getting fat, which clearly crosses the line. Exit Alexander -- and the horse he rode in on.

By now, even the cocky Sebastian begins to look scared sick when Katherine tells him: "I’d rather stop you breathing than have you doubt how I feel,”

As Katherine transforms from slave to tyrant, she earns, stretches and then loses our sympathy.  Yet, her canny, entertaining performance is consistently compelling. Pugh, with her round impassive face, looking like a teapot in her vivid blue bell-bottom dress, rides a fine line between romantic heroine and moral monster.

The politics of Lady Macbeth are, unfortunately, less finely-tuned. Both Katherine's father-in-law and husband, guardians of a hypocritical patriarchal morality, are tediously one-dimensional.  As well, the filmmakers have made some provocative modifications to Leskov's story, injecting race to the mix of class and gender.

Following the lead of the black Heathcliffe in Andrea Arnold's version of Wuthering Heights,  Acki, who plays Anna the maid, is black, while Jarvis, who is part Armenian, is light brown. Two other characters show up in the third act, an older black woman and her adorable biracial grandson (his very appearance lights up warning bells).  No character in the film comments on the racial diferences and the filmmakers have claimed both colour-blind casting and historical plausibility for their choice. There’s no real question that their choices are designed to show the hierarchy of oppression, how a victim finds more vulnerable victims to hurt. As valid an insight as that may be, it makes the movie feel almost Victorian in its didacticism.

Lady Macbeth. Directed by William Oldroyd, writen by Anne Birch. Starriing: Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis, Paul Hilton, Naomi Ackie and Christopher Fairbanks. Opens Friday July 28 in Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal