Movie Review: “Lady Macbeth”

All photos courtesy of Roadside Attractions
All photos courtesy of Roadside Attractions
All photos courtesy of Roadside Attractions

Feminist outrage turns itself on its head and shakes off its moral cobwebs in “Lady Macbeth,” the disturbing, ferocious and unforgettable debut feature from English director William Oldroyd.

Forming at best a thematic lineage with the Shakespeare character of the title, the movie’s source material is actually Nikolai Leskov’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. But considering how dramatically it deviates from that novella, it’s best to forget about the film’s title and its inevitable associations: This is an original work of fiction, full stop.

It’s set in rural England in 1865, where Katherine (21-year-old newcomer Florence Pugh) has been purchased as the spouse to a middle-aged grouse named Alexander (Paul Hilton), who keeps her cloistered in the castle they inhabit with his dentally challenged father, Boris (Christopher Fairbank). Husband and wife share no affection for each other. When Alexander is not humiliating her naked body, he shuns it, preferring to pleasure himself, from a distance, to her backside.

Katherine is as much a piece of property as the housecat and the china. Like Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette,” Katherine is a modern female sequestered in a regressive age. You can feel the painful constrictions of the corset she’s required to wear, and you feel immersed in the tedium and second-class servitude of her life.

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Screenwriter Alice Birch, cinematographer Ari Wegner, and Oldroyd chronicle this marital slog with patient attention to detail, staging her day-to-day life in sequences that stress its numbing repetitions, and shots that emphasize its splendorous emptiness. Filming everything frontally and confrontationally, Oldroyd’s camera eye is the boldest I’ve discovered in some time. (The severe symmetrical framing nods to legendary British director Peter Greenaway, surely an influence on Oldroyd’s work.)

Soon enough, the stifling patterns of Katherine’s life are disrupted, first by the abrupt departure of Alexander on an urgent business matter, then by the aggressive sexual overtures of Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), a virile groundskeeper. They begin a bodice-ripping affair that leads to multiple murders—and shifts in the movie’s tone that are as wild as they are harrowing.

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“Lady Macbeth” is haunted by the spirits of female gothic literature, of the Brontës and Du Maurier and Shelley, but also by the cunning femmes fatales of film noir. The corroded air of pulp-fiction classics like “The Postman Always Rings Twice” grows more toxic as the narrative spirals into ever-more-destructive directions, leading to an excruciating long take that can’t be unviewed. You’ll know it when you see it.

A doomful treatise on power, caste, corruption and race (the fortress’ head maid, a black woman, is a central supporting character), “Lady Macbeth” is anchored masterfully by Pugh. Her performance is a multifaceted, star-making turn with a revelation in every reel. Like the film itself, she deserves credit for refusing to please her audience, flummoxing us where we expect to cheer. The heart of darkness has rarely beaten under a lovelier form.

“Lady Macbeth” opens today, July 28, at Living Room Theaters and Regal Shadowood in Boca Raton, Movies of Delray, AMC CityPlace in West Palm Beach, the Classic Gateway Theatre in Fort Lauderdale, AMC Aventura, Regal South Beach in Miami Beach, and the Landmark at Merrick Park.