by Toby Woollaston
“I’m thick skinned”—a seemingly innocuous opening statement from Lady Macbeth’s protagonist speaks volumes about the film’s central character, Katherine (played by Florence Pugh) and its exploration of liberation within an oppressive marriage.
Adapted from Nikolai Leskov’s book “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” (1865) by Alice Birch, Lady Macbeth keeps the action in the same period but shifts the story from Russia to northern England. As the title suggests, it is a thematic reworking of the character from Shakespeare’s famous Scottish play, although some might see more similarities with Charlize Theron’s character in Patti Jenkin’s 2003 thriller Monster. This is a black widow story and Katherine is a femme fatale in the truest sense. Its investigation into a corrupt feminine power within an oppressive marital system renders the film dark and brooding, and at times quite brutal … but it’s thrilling to behold.
Katherine is a chattel, bought as her husband says, “along with a piece of land not fit enough for a cow to graze upon.” He, along with his grumpy father (played by the wonderfully earthy Christopher Fairbank), keep her under their strict set of rules. Indeed, there is very little joy here. When Katherine strikes up an amorous relationship with a farm-hand things don’t go down too well. It is one of those films where everyone is a nasty piece of work … except the poor housemaid, Anna (Naomi Ackie), who finds herself in the middle of the hostilities and acts as the film’s only form of moral compass.
Director William Oldroyd, a relative newcomer to feature film set, has breathed some fresh air to the staid old period drama. He comfortably ratchets mood and tension without any musical score, which is also a testament to the wonderful work of cinematographer Ari Wegner. There is plenty at play in Lady Macbeth’s visual style, not least Katherine’s character who is illustrated with an evocative use of camera and lighting, allowing Pugh to work a commanding performance. Pugh’s slightly unhinged portrayal is the perfect foil for this enthralling piece of psychological period cinema.
Read my reviews on the NZ Herald’s website here.