North-East England, 1865 is the setting for William Oldroyd’s take on the Nikolai Leskov novel, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District and has quite rightly cemented rising star Florence Pugh’s reputation as one of the UK’s most exciting screen talents.
Playwright Alice Birch has penned a witty, gutsy and enigmatic (much like our heroine) script that is both meaty and measured and it’s this that gives Pugh the opportunity to really excel in her role.
The narrative opens with Pugh’s teenage Katherine married to Paul Hilton’s cruel colliery heir Alexander, whose father purchased his bride along with a piece of land “not fit for a cow to graze upon”.
Katherine’s days are an endlessly dull affair spent wearing rib-crushingly tight corsets. The girl’s situation seems hopeless until a chance encounter with one of the groundsmen; the rugged and devil-may-care ne’er do well, Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis). The attraction is clear from the beginning and although she attempts to suppress it and fend off the young man, a sexual relationship develops. Katherine soon becomes more and more independent in her husband’s absence, much to the annoyance of vicious and controlling father-in-law Boris (Christopher Fairbank).
Pugh is a master puppeteer, making her audience dance to her every whim. She walks a tightrope between audience sympathy and repugnance, a delicate balancing act she pulls off with brilliant and considerable ease and gusto. Given her Shakespearean namesake, you’d expect things to turn sour and blood to flow and soon enough, our perceptions of her are turned completely inside out, upside down, any which way you can. When things turn dark (and what darkness awaits!), we are in way over our heads, invested in her character and complicit in her crimes.
Plaudits, of which there are many, should also go to cinematographer Ari Wegner. His use of handheld close-ups provides an intimate portrayal of Katherine’s journey. Indeed, there are lots of these and Pugh has nowhere to hide. Thankfully, she is on top her game and pulls it off effortlessly. Elsewhere, a static long shot on wide lens accentuates the horror of another key scene which just demonstrates further how chillingly cold and calculated Katherine has become.
Perception is everything in Lady Macbeth, and we find ourselves constantly looking at Sebastian, as well as Katherine. Is he the Heathcliff to her Cathy in the Bronte-esque landscape on the wild, windy moors? Is there more to him that meets the eye?
Ambiguous and enigmatic, William Oldroyd has hit all the right notes in his screen directorial debut, but Pugh and Jarvis are the real deal.