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Hell hath no fury like a sexually frustrated young woman trapped in a loveless marriage to an impotent sadist, as this noir-tinged historical drama demonstrates. Relocating Russian author Nikolai Leskov’s classic 1865 novel Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District to 19th century England, British theater director William Oldroyd’s crisp feature debut invokes a familiar pantheon of female literary outlaws from Madame Bovary to Anna Karenina to Lady Chatterley.
Lady Macbeth mostly operates within established period conventions, but draws fresh blood from antique material thanks to a sparky cast, subtle nods to contemporary race and gender issues and a hefty shot of gothic melodrama. Premiering in Toronto, it should lure a wider audience with its seductive mix of sex, murder, proto-feminist subtext and fabulous frocks.
First published in Dostoevsky’s literary journal Epoch, Leskov’s novel is a lurid parable of crime and punishment set on a provincial estate in Tsarist Russia. Shostakovich later adapted the story into a celebrated 1934 opera, almost ending his career by outraging his Stalinist overlords. Several big- and small-screen versions followed, including one by the Polish master Andrzej Wajda in 1962. World premiering in Toronto this week, Oldroyd’s English-language adaptation delivers an impressive amount of bite on a tight budget. It was made for under £500,000 ($670,000) as part of a regional film-funding program supported by BBC Films and the British Film Institute.
The setting is Northumberland, a rugged and remote county in northeast England. Katherine (Florence Pugh) is a nervous teenage bride who has been effectively bought by Alexander (Paul Hilton), a louche mining boss more than twice her age. Her official role is to provide Alexander with children — more Madame Ovary than Madame Bovary. In reality, Katherine soon finds her new husband to be a cold, controlling and sexually dysfunctional brute.
Banned from her beloved walks across the wild moorland, with only her maid Anna (Naomi Ackie) and hostile father-in-law Boris (Christopher Fairbank) as company, Katherine inevitably craves excitement. She finds it in the shape of a virile, insubordinate servant named Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), a crush that quickly develops into a lust-crazed love affair. Increasingly brazen, their adulterous relationship sets tongues wagging, finally provoking violent retribution from Boris and Alexander. But rather than give each other up, the lovers fight back with murder. One cold-blooded killing soon becomes a bloodbath, engulfing both guilty and innocent alike.
Playing her first lead after a handful of minor screen credits, the 19-year-old Pugh already has clear star quality, her heart-shaped face and aura of latent mischief recalling the young Christina Ricci. Holding her own opposite some experienced stage veterans, she plots a confident path through a subtle performance that is mostly just below the surface, all sly glances and subversive innuendo. Her stage-drunk scenes, a test for any actor, look authentic rather than forced. Another small but important detail for British viewers is her mastery of the distinctive Northumberland brogue, which is not her native accent, an achievement shared by the entire cast.
In previous iterations of Leskov’s story, evil is ultimately punished and moral order restored. While Oldroyd and screenwriter Alice Birch stay largely faithful to the novel’s plot and characters, they deviate in the final act, ending on an ambivalent note more attuned to cynical modern sensibilities. Following the example of Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights, they also make the bold decision to use race as code for class, casting black or mixed-race actors in the main peasant roles. This anachronistic touch goes unmentioned by the characters, but clearly speaks to contemporary racial tensions.
Lady Macbeth inevitably betrays its limited budget in places, from its single country-house location to its occasionally cramped, televisual feel. Some of the more bizarre plots twists, such as when Anna is conveniently struck mute after witnessing evil deeds, are dated and contrived. Katherine’s hasty leap from bored housewife to amoral serial killer also feels psychologically implausible, a hangover from a bygone age when rebellious women were routinely dismissed as dangerous hysterics.
That said, Lady Macbeth has a deliciously amoral darkness and a crisp visual look. Oldroyd and his Australian cinematographer Ari Wegner shoot their handsome interiors with a pleasingly formal symmetry and their wintry landscapes with a mist-shrouded, painterly romanticism. Katherine’s glamorous outfits are a subplot in themselves: Her vivid blue dress becomes emblematic of her liberated spirit in a cruelly colorless world, while the constricting crinolines and corsets she wears beneath speak volumes about patriarchal oppression. Full of subtle pleasures, this is a small but impressive debut.
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival
Production companies: Sixty Six Pictures, iFeatures
Cast: Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis, Paul Hilton, Naomi Ackie, Christopher Fairbank
Director: William Oldroyd
Screenwriter: Alice Birch, based on the book Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District by Nikolai Leskov
Producer: Fodhla Cronin O’Reilly
Cinematographer: Ari Wegner
Editor: Nick Emerson
Sales company: Protagonist
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