By Nicolas Rapold in the July-August 2017 Issue
A word (or three) about the title: rather than riffing on Shakespeare, screenwriter Alice Birch has adapted an 1865 novella by Russian writer Nikolai Leskov, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. Leskov’s book was the basis for a notorious 1934 opera by Shostakovich, which has been staged in London and New York in the past few years, and one wonders if these inspired William Oldroyd—a theater director making his film debut by repatriating this tabloid-esque story of extravagant rebellion to Northern England. Oldroyd and Birch seem to want to cram the passion and intrigue of an entire opera into 89 minutes of closely staged, single-location filmmaking.
Fortunately, Lady Macbeth stars the considerably entertaining 21-year-old actor Florence Pugh in the lead role of Katherine, the newly acquired wife of industrialist scion Alexander (Paul Hilton, looking fresh from the moors). Katherine is neglected by Alexander, confined like chattel in a medieval-looking mansion with her maid (Naomi Ackie), and bored out of her tightly bunned skull. Cue an unruly pageant of lust-seeking and insolence, through an affair with a farmhand, Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), and defiance of Alexander and his father.
The film avoids the Lawrentian ring of her sexual escapades, and part of its appeal lies in Katherine’s laying waste to the pretenses of respectability as a 21st-century adolescent might. But Katherine feels disorientingly more modern than anyone around her, and the cold-blooded finale feels less like a true reckoning with moral character than the filmmakers seem to intend.