Occasionally there is a film that has such confidence in what it is offering that it knocks the viewer for six. Such is Lady Macbeth, William Oldroyd's startling debut, adapted from Nikolai Leskov's Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk by playwright Alice Birch. What the film lacks in levity, bar the occasional moment of gallows humour, it makes up for with an impact that lingers long after the closing credits.
Transported to an English countryside setting from the Russian one of the novella, Lady Macbeth tells the story of a young woman sold into a loveless marriage. Trapped in an unfamiliar house, in a hostile, gendered environment, the audience watches as Katherine's acts of rebellion manifest themselves, starting small then slowly increasing in velocity and assurance until the film reaches its shattering climax. To say more would ruin the impact of these events, but it is safe to say that there are at least three moments where not a single member of the audience were able to breathe. As well as offering a thrillingly bleak Victorian noir, the film explores themes of race, gender, class, and sexuality. Within the film's brisk running time much is packed in that can be untangled and explored long after the film has finished.
The male characters within Lady Macbeth are either weak, repugnant or a combination of the two. There is sterling support work from Christopher Fairbank, Cosmo Jarvis, and Paul Hilton but the two performances that stand out are the lead female characters. Naomi Ackie as the loyal maid, Anna, is fascinating. The nuance and subtle range that Ackie brings to this role make her character all the more intriguing, and I would happily sit through the film again just to trace her journey. That being said, this is Katherine's film and Florence Pugh's performance is remarkable. As Katherine transforms and tests the audience's sympathies, Pugh brings a potent energy to the role. The grounded nature of Lady Macbeth is reflected in the intricacies of Pugh's performance and she carries this film. She is a talent who will go far, and this role is her calling card.
On a technical level Lady Macbeth is exemplary. The use of silence in a movie can be remarkably illuminating. With so many iconic scores littering the history of cinema, audiences expect a score to add further insight. The restraint shown here in the use of a score and the long stretches of silence make every word spoken, every sound heard meaningful. The acts of violence are shocking as they so often break the silence with their ferocity. This is coupled by Ari Wegner's majestic cinematography, and there are moments of true beauty in Lady Macbeth that reward the emotionally exhausting experience for the viewer.
The insights that can be gleaned from a first viewing of Lady Macbeth promise a film that will reward those who return to it at a later date. It is an opaque film, one whose troubling impact lingers long after it has finished. Lady Macbeth is a star-making lead role for Pugh and an electric debut for Oldroyd, a must see, exceptionally rewarding film for audiences.