Directed by William Oldroyd
Starring Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis
Film Review Lucas Wilson
As with all the finest gothic pieces, the landscape broods large in William Oldroyd’s film adaptation of Nikolai Leskov’s Lady Macbeth. While in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, a formal touchstone here, the landscape enhanced the heroine’s sense of isolation against the wild forces at her door, in Lady Macbeth the protagonist is one with the Northumbrian wilderness, much to the alarm of the reproduction-obsessed husband-father team who attempt to tame her. The tensions arising from this, from autonomy in combat with the unmasked tyranny of orthodoxy, form the backbone of Lady Macbeth and they are expertly channelled in Florence Pugh’s highly controlled, powerful performance.
Pugh’s turn is a masterclass in volcano-calm acting, often helming intense feelings of lust and anger with facial stillness and sinister intensity. Had Lady Macbeth seen a wide release earlier, it should with any justice have given her a first academy award. Opposite Pugh, singer-songwriter Cosmo Jarvis appears as an object of desire, not too difficult looking as Jarvis does, but he doesn’t rest on his laurels, capturing the vitality and weakness at the heart of his character.
If the idea of the male as object of sexualised desire sounds subversive in a period drama it’s because it is; Lady Macbeth draws upon a literary and visual legacy deeply rooted in late British Romanticism only to invert traditional conceits. The damsel as distressed and other-regarding is violently reversed and if what that looks like isn’t exactly feminist, it’s highly individualistic. Parallels with Milton’s Satan and the other Bronte’s Heathcliff, both rebels against household conformity, are obvious and underscored by the anti-heroine’s forthright rejection of religion in favour of personal pleasure and a self-selected code of values; not generally concerns in the domain of young women in Victorian England.
Dan Jones’ score soundtracks these themes well although it’s his work as sound designer, all low winds and slamming doors, bringing to life the open spaces of Ari Wenger’s bleak, sparse cinematography, that embeds itself in the subconscious, playing with and tending on mortal thoughts. Some of these cinematic elements conjure Fukunaga’s undeservedly overlooked 2011 adaptation of Jane Eyre, elsewhere it’s Shakespeare directly that’s invoked, especially the genre-starting play from across the border from which Lady Macbeth gets its title. If you’ve ever watched that Macbeth and wondered what if things might weren’t all right in the end, the rightful king restored and peace throughout the land, if you’ve ever wondered what if the lady of Dunsinane had openly raised her head defiantly against those who would douse her fires, Lady Macbeth, one of the best British films in a few years, offers a tantalising howl from across the moors of time.