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Lady Macbeth
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by alejandroariera

"Hell Hath No Fury Like a Woman Scorned"
4 stars

Outside the occasional unnecessary sequel and franchise launcher —“Transformers: The Last Knight,” “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell no Tales,” “The Mummy,” et al.— this has not been a bad summer at the movies. Directors like Patty Jenkins (“Wonder Woman”), Matt Reeves (“War for the Planet of the Apes”) and Edgar Wright (“Baby Driver”) have reminded moviegoers that summer blockbusters don’t always have to cater to the lowest common denominator. They can deliver thrills, ideas, fully developed characters and, most of all, action scenes that make sense. And whereas in the past specialty art houses provided hardcore cinephiles a refuge from the noise, this year the box office success of Michael Showater’s “The Big Sick” and Sofia Coppola’s divisive “The Beguiled” among others, shows, as Leonard Klady recently pointed out in his weekly box-office column for MovieCityNews.com, that there is a hunger for alternatives that is being satiated this summer by films of outstanding quality. Add to this list William Oldroyd’s austere, claustrophobic feature debut “Lady Macbeth,” a literary adaptation that turns the British period drama on its head.

Based on Nikolai Leskov’s novella “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” —which also inspired Dimitri Shostakovich’s 1934 opera and Andrzej Wajda’s 1963 adaptation “Siberian Lady Macbeth”— and shot in 2015 for slightly more than half a million dollars, Oldroyd and dramatist and screenwriter Alice Birch strip the tale to its bare essentials. The opening shot alone is a declaration of intent: a tight shot, center-framed, of white-veiled 17-year-old Katherine (Florence Pugh, who was 19 at the time of the shoot) at her wedding, surrounded by whom we assume to be her husband and priest, out of focus, proceeding over the ceremony. There are no establishing shots of the church –in fact, there are no establishing shots at all throughout the film— no pomp and circumstance. We are thrust immediately into a confined world. The following scene is equally stark and rigorous in its framing: in their grey, sparsely furnished bedroom, Katherine’s reluctant husband Alexander (Paul Hilton) orders her to never venture outside during the day and to undress. But instead of consuming their relationship, which is what his bullying father Boris (Christopher Fairbanks) expected when he “acquired” her, Alexander goes to bed, leaving her standing, naked and shivering. We don’t know much about Katherine except that she has been handed over to this authoritarian household at the cusp of her sexual and even intellectual development. She has no backstory upon which we can latch a narrative on, one that could provide an explanation to her actions later in the film, leaving it up to us to fill in the blanks.

Katherine gets her first taste of freedom when both men leave the remote house in the middle of the moors for business. She bursts into the open, cloudy fields after days spent inside the house, sleeping and even drinking, her arms opened wide, the wind blowing around her. Katherine starts a passionate, reckless affair with Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), a groomsman of mixed race. Her sexual appetite is insatiable and word soon gets out of her infidelity. Oldroyd and Birch deliberately deny us the pleasure of the town citizens (for there is a town, even though it’s kept off-screen, again part of Oldroyd’s minimalist approach) gossiping about the couple’s reprehensible behavior the way we are used to seeing and reading in period dramas. Only the local priest stops by the house to remind a defiant Katherine that she is better off staying indoors…another repressive institution telling her what to do, how to behave. When Boris returns from his trip and harangues Katherine for her behavior while cruelly punishing both her black maid Anna (Naomie Ackie) and Sebastian, Katherine takes deadly action, the first of many deaths.

“Lady Macbeth” is far more than a revenge tale or a story about repression and the uninhibited passions it unleashes. It is also a story about power: who holds it and who wields it. By being true to history and casting black, mixed-race and ethnic actors in this period piece, Oldroyd shows how Katherine slowly turns from victim to victimizer, from a piece of property to property owner (although the final scene and shot question how long she can hold onto that power). Oldroyd and Birch add another layer by introducing a subplot not found in the original novella: Katherine’s husband had an illegitimate child with a black woman and that child is now his legal ward. How Katherine handles this new challenge and her relationship to the child’s regal and equally dominant black grandmother is tragic and devastating. It forces us to question our own sympathies towards her.

The movie’s austere, formal style serves the story well. The cold, paint-like images and the sound design underline the isolation and oppression. Every wind howl, ever echo made by house’s inhabitants as they walk over the wooden floors, every grunt during intercourse, even the sound of Anna’s comb scraping Katherine’s hair and the sound of a skull being crushed is amplified, accentuating the violence —psychological and physical, humiliating and deadly— that lies right underneath the surface, ready to explode at any moment. The interiors scenes are static, delicately composed, the frame turned into a prison cell full of cold pastels and solid colors; the exteriors are a flurry of movement, where a handheld camera follows Katherine ecstatically or with a certain elegant grace, full of earthier, lush colors while its overcast skies seem to be pushing downward, ready to crush these characters. And then there’s the cat, a scrawny, yellow critter that pops in an out of the frame, walking on top of the furniture, staring at Katherine non-judgmentally, adding a dollop of weird humor to the proceedings.

Florence Pugh’s performance as Katherine and Naomie Ackie’s as Anna serve as powerfully vibrant counterpoints to the film’s formality. At the beginning of the film, Katherine may be playing the role of a compliant, willing wife but her eyes tell a different story: her gaze is defiant, hungry, full of spark. She is a modern woman trapped in a bonnet and a corset. Pugh embraces her character’s newfound freedom with wild abandon while preserving a cool, detached, yet calculating, demeanor. This is her second role on a feature-length film and it’s a revelation. Ackie’s Anna is not too far behind: she is both witness and guardian, a tool used by her masters to preserve the status quo while still a victim of it. She is as much an observer as an unwilling participant, a woman who knows the people she works for are rotten to the core but there is nothing she can do about it. Anna is struck mute halfway through the film, her silence and her gaze a stand-in for our own wavering loyalty to Katherine. Ackie’s gaze, the way she tilts her head, her ability to use silence as a tool is transfixing. Like Pugh, Ackie is an actress I expect to see a lot more of in the near future.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=31177&reviewer=434
originally posted: 07/21/17 11:06:13
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2016 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2017 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2017 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

2/06/20 Dr. Lao Liked it, but not one I would ever watch again 3 stars
2/25/19 Louise (the real one) Well made, full of intrigue and great acting performances. Recommended 4 stars
8/23/17 Barbara Leaf Brit Lit - love it or hate it. I love it. 4 stars
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  14-Jul-2017 (R)
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