Sympathy for the She-Devil?

in 57th Thessaloniki International Film Festival

by Aleksander Huser

The British film Lady Macbeth, this year’s winner of the FIPRESCI Award in the international competition at the Thessaloniki International Film Festival, is an adaptation of the Russian author Nikolái Leskov’s 1865 novella Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. In director William Oldroyd’s film, the story – which previously inspired an opera by Dmitri Shostakovich and a film by Andrzej Wajda – is moved from Tsarist Russia to Victorian England, keeping the central theme of a woman trying to break out of the strictly subordinate role that is expected of her in 19th century Europe.

More or less sold as a commodity, the young protagonist, Katherine (named Katarina in the book) finds herself in a loveless marriage with a middle-aged man of wealth and somewhat sadistic dispositions. In his family’s spacious countryside house, Katherine is locked in her corset in more than a literal sense, being closely watched by both servants and her father-in-law in her husband’s frequent absence. Still, her supressed passion finds an outlet when she starts an affair with one of the rugged workmen on the estate. Driven by love and sexual obsession, our heroine starts plotting a way to get rid of the hateful, elderly man of the house – only to find that one murder leads to another, and then yet another.

As the observant reader probably has realised by now, the film tells a classic tale of desire, crime and perhaps also punishment, centred around a femme fatale that draws comparison to Madame Bovary, Lady Chatterley and the Shakespearian character of the film’s title. However, in Oldroyd and screenwriter Alice Birch’s skilful hands, the story takes several unexpected and thrilling turns, successfully blending period melodrama with noir thriller elements.

An experienced stage director, Oldroyd makes his feature film debut with Lady Macbeth, displaying an impressively precise and exquisite cinematic language. Using mainly static images, Ari Wegner’s lavish cinematography emphasises the empty spaces surrounding the characters, pointing metaphorically towards all that is lacking in their lives.

In addition to a well-crafted plot, much of the film’s considerable entertainment value is based upon our – at least up to a certain point – sympathetic engagement with the soon-to-be murderous protagonist, firmly and cleverly established by showing her as an oppressed female in a cruel world of mostly cold, old men. By including black servants, arguably realistic for the story’s time and place, the film also underlines an aspect often neglected in films set in this era. Furthermore, the film’s addressing of both racial and gender issues makes the story highly relevant for our so-called modern times, like the best period dramas tend to be. Lady Katherine can be seen as a feminist rebel full of both determination and emotion, yet she might also be a stone cold psychopath. This intriguing complexity is astoundingly well balanced by young newcomer Florence Pugh, who delivers a truly remarkable performance in a demanding lead role. From the film’s generally talented and wisely chosen cast, Cosmo Jarvis and Naomi Ackie – two more rather unknown names – also deserve to be mentioned for their portrayals of the protagonist’s lover and maid, respectively.

Being a period drama film with an obvious reference to the famous Scottish play, Lady Macbeth stands on the shoulders of a rich and respected tradition of British storytelling. Adding to this, there is a touch of contemporary Austrian filmmakers Michael Haneke and Ulrich Seidl in William Oldroyd’s debut – especially in its stylistic approach, but also in the playful manipulation of sympathy for a fiendish character.

Yet, with its eagerness to both please and shock the audience, Lady Macbeth is above all a fresh and thrilling take on a classic story, made by a novel director that definitely merits watching in the future.

Edited by José Teodoro