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What's Done Is Done: Lady Macbeth Reviewed
Ellie Broughton , April 28th, 2017 09:19

Ellie Broughton reviews first time director William Oldroyd's racy period drama, Lady Macbeth

On Katherine Lester’s wedding night, her maid Anna buttons her into a nightdress.

Are you cold, Anna asks. No, Katherine replies.

Moments later, Katherine and her husband prepare for their first night together. The house is cold, he tells her. She protests that she's thick-skinned. To punish her for answering back, he commands her to take off her nightdress. As she pulls it over her head, the gold of her wedding band catches the low light of the fire behind him. Clothes gone, finger still trapped in the ring, she stands naked in the stone cold room while he climbs under the covers.

Lady Macbeth, based on a 19th century novella, has previously been the stuff of stage and opera adaptations. (The film’s director, William Oldroyd, and writer, Alice Birch, both have backgrounds in theatre). It’s the first feature for its director, writer and producer. One of the products of the iFeatures programme, Lady Macbeth was put together in Northumberland on a shoestring budget; its star, Florence Pugh, won Breakthrough Of The Year for her performance. All in all, the film’s starting from scratch.

But the title refers to a character most of us already know inside out. Like the Shakespearean queen, the bored housewife (Pugh) at the centre of this story refuses to accept her lot. Beyond that, all audiences need to know is that the rest of the film is the slow, steady collision of every other character with Katherine Lester’s iron will. Cold? She’s practically Siberian.

So after the wedding, Mr Lester goes away on business. In his absence, Katherine comes across servants gathered in the shed, who at first seem to be playing. You've wasted enough of my husband's time, she chastises them. Then she notices that they have someone trapped in a sling they use to hoist pigs.

We're weighing a sow, the ringleader leers, and yanks the rope. Anna (Naomi Ackie) yelps.

Let her down, Katherine shouts. Anna leaps out of the sling, grabs the bundle of clothes on the floor and runs out.

Face the wall, she instructs the men.

She catches the ringleader's eye. How much would I weigh, she asks.

He picks her up and throws her over his shoulder. Humiliated and out of control, she punches and kicks him until she knocks him over. Afterwards, she sits on the windowsill, looking out, looking legless and passive.

Many of the interior scenes were inspired by the work of a c19th artist, Hammershoi: his paintings others focus on single female figures in cold, empty rooms, who are turned away from the viewer. Like them, Katherine Lester is almost inscrutable. Control and condemnation have worn her down; isolation and boredom left her desperate.

But unlike a Brontean heroine, she rejects escapism and whimsy. She’s no tart with a heart, and provides no tearjerking backstory. She’s not even out for revenge. Katherine Lester’s your classic ‘watch the world burn’ villain, and her free-wheeling violence makes the film all the more compelling.

While the men of the house are gone, Katherine takes Sebastian, a worker on her husband's estate, to bed, drinks the cellar dry and hides none of her activities from the servants. Her father-in-law returns to a house in disarray. She plays the recalcitrant daughter-in-law for a night, then bumps him off the next day over breakfast before he’s even had the chance for a second cup of coffee.

Far from passive, Katherine reveals she has plenty of agency - but she feels no responsibility to anyone else. As the first murder takes place, heard but not seen, Katherine commands Anna to sit down as the dying man bellows and claws the door for two unrelenting minutes. Afterwards, Anna kneads a loaf with the fury her mistress hid from her victim - but is left impotently boxing dough, having nothing else to take it out on. No-one stops Katherine’s husband falling to the same fate as his father.

In the film’s fourth act, the arrival of her husband’s son from a previous relationship connects Katherine with her own vulnerability for a moment. She takes the boy out to the garden and teaches him to recognise the swallows flying over them, just as her mother taught her.

Do you miss your mother, she asks.

Yes, he replies. Do you yours?

She takes his small hand in hers.

Meanwhile, Sebastian’s attentions are shifting. A desperate Katherine develops one final ploy to get him back.

No more bowing, Katherine Lester promises Sebastian at first, but of course there will be. First Sebastian must bow to her will; then Alexander, Anna and Teddy must bow under his.

There are hardly any criticisms to be made about Lady Macbeth: the film will be too slow for some viewers, a few interior shots too long or indulgent; it takes a while to build atmosphere, and Anna’s character could have been explored slightly more.

But the sound, colour, costumes, setting, dialogue, casting, performances, arc and pace are pitch perfect. Florence Pugh is mesmerising, and Ackie’s understated portrayal of Anna is quietly devastating. The view is bleak and captivating. The huge landscapes and roaring soundscapes give glimpses of the raw power that drives the protagonist. On top of the soundscapes, and those incredible painterly interior shots, the film hangs from a sizzling, stripped-back script that makes its silence claustrophobic. The energy of the film’s inevitable tragedy barrels hard into the film’s devastating twist.

As a study in power, not much else comes close this year. Expect plenty more to come from the trio behind it.

Lady Macbeth is in cinemas now