Tuesday 23 May 2017

Master of the house: "Lady Macbeth"

Signs of life in the moribund period genre. That Lady Macbeth was never intended as another of our rose-tinted, post-Downton, pre-Brexit skips down memory lane can be intuited almost immediately from the clipped precision of its editing and the severity of its framing: we're not meant to luxuriate or wallow in these images so much as see the dust gathering and the chill hanging in the air. Writer Alice Birch and director William Oldroyd have here relocated the powerplays of Nikolai Leskov's novella Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, first published in Dostoyevsky's magazine Epoch and later adapted by Shostakovich as an opera and by Andrzej Wajda as a film, to the North of England of the late 19th century; between them, they succeed in making the Northumbrian moors appear even less hospitable than the wilds of Siberia. Some things, so the underlying editorial goes, may be best left to the past.

Leskov provides the basic outline: a young bride - here named Katherine (Florence Pugh, from The Falling), that hard Slavic K differentiating her from those other Cathys who came home hereabouts - married off to a wealthy mineowner and subsequently locked away as one more acquisition among many. With absolutely no purpose of her own, save to produce the heir that might extend the dynasty, Katherine is obliged by day to strap herself into corsets, meekly wait up for the ineffectual man of the house (Paul Hilton) to conclude his business, and then further submit to his control - although this fellow has some funny ideas on how to procreate, forcing his bride to strip before leaving her shivering on their wedding night, and later ordering her to face the wall while he laboriously tugs himself off. 

Still, Katherine has spirit, and a brain, and appetites still: she finds more subversive ways of killing this time, of resisting, even. With hubby increasingly absent, she takes up with a lusty, mocking labourer, Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), moving him into her chambers and beneath the sheets of the marital bed, further reorganising this household on her own terms. Yet this proves to be but the briefest of idylls, offering only an illusion of power, not one that can hold for long in this particular day and age. What strikes us, in the meantime, is the extent to which the film has been organised around its leading lady: independent British cinema, with its makeshift resources and mucking-in aesthetic, doesn't tend to throw up many starmaking roles, but this would be one of them.

There was something preternatural or otherworldly about Pugh in The Falling: she was an alien queen in knee-length socks, putting her contemporaries under her spell. Here, she's anomalous in a different way: an unmistakably modern presence, she makes Katherine bored out of her mind, passive-aggressive, bolshy when she needs to be, as though someone had just snatched this twentysomething's iPhone out of her hands seconds before the cameras started rolling. Katherine fucks for pleasure, rather than out of duty, which makes her a threat to the established order: when she suddenly stands up in the middle of a genteel afternoon tea with a passing vicar who's started prying into her extracurricular activities, it's both her way of letting her guest know it's time to leave, and Oldroyd's way of disrupting the neat symmetry of his frame.

This director, who hails from theatre, knows how to work a multiplicity of perspectives into his action. Katherine's sole companion for much of the film, and her co-conspirator for some of it, is Anna (Naomi Ackie), a put-upon black maid who, while she may enjoy a measure of liberation in peeping in at her mistress's carnal activities, appears more trapped than anybody else on screen. However bad Katherine may have it at the clammy, grabby hands of the patriarchy, Anna - hogtied for sport by the labourers, forced to grovel on her hands and knees by her employers - has it far, far worse. (And when everybody's retired behind closed doors, Oldroyd can always cut away to the family's half-starved cat licking up the scraps from table: another sign of just how little trickles down to this household's poorer creatures.)

As befits one who's studied the work of Ibsen and Strindberg, Oldroyd retains a beady eye for the class system's cruelties, some of which have been stamped out, others of which persist, all of which make for rather more bracing and arresting drama than the pageants and parades that make up the bulk of British costume fare. The film's final third is a deviation of sorts, following through the consequences of Katherine's rebellion, and suggesting that such revolts are rarely clean cut; perhaps it required a Russian dramatist to tell us this. A horse's corpse lies uncovered and mouldering in the estate's back fields; ballgowns get dragged through the muck; a child's life hangs in the balance. Here, as elsewhere, cinematographer Ari Wegner's cool, Hammershøi-shaded interiors make no attempt to hide the pain and exploitation that went to make up the pretty pictures of Empire.

Katherine, meanwhile, finds herself confronted with a barrage of questions, less easily dodged than those the vicar tossed her way: what are you going to do now? And what are you prepared to do now? This final act is, in many respects, no more than a nasty, straggly loose end - which distinguishes Lady Macbeth from the keep-calm-and-carry-on flagwaving of a crowdpleaser like Their Finest - but Oldroyd's willingness to pursue it suggests he won't submit easily to the bows-and-bonnets school of thought. If Andrea Arnold's radical take on Wuthering Heights - which Lady Macbeth recalls not just in its location, but its casting and attitude - had reached an audience back in 2011, we might have had five or six more of these in the half-decade since. As it is, we've got one, and it lands as revivifying, to say the least - not so much tea-and-biscuits cinema as a cup of cold coffee, thrown directly into the viewer's face. Brace yourself.

Lady Macbeth is now playing in selected cinemas.

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