First time feature film director William Oldroyd’s vivid, vibrant Lady Macbeth is not based on the Shakespeare play but on the Russian novella Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk by Nikolai Leskov, from a screenplay by fellow debutante Alice Birch. It’s about a woman who refuses to play by the rules, and the film electrifyingly does the same.
Oldroyd had a terribly small budget but has delivered a full-throated period melodrama; the way his limited resources have informed his artistic choices should put Lady Macbeth on film schools’ syllabi the world over. He couldn’t afford a score, so has made a virtue of barely using any music at all; his production design budget being minuscule, he’s imprisoned his characters in a world of their own austerity.
Florence Pugh, a young British actress about to become a star, plays Katherine, a young North English woman sold, along with a parcel of land, into marriage in 1865. Her new husband is the alcohol-riven wanker (literally) Alexander, who lives on a very austere estate with his despicable mine-owning father Boris and their various servants. When – thankfully! – both Boris and Alexander are called away for a few weeks, Katherine and the servants get up to no good, with serious consequences galore.
The film crackles with immediacy. The actors’ words echo sharply in the near-empty, soulless wooden rooms; clothes are dirty and the cold is tangible. This is the miserable part of England, the damp foggy boggy musty part: think moors, Heathcliff, the opening scenes of An American Werewolf in London. It’s period, but not BBC or Merchant Ivory or even Downton Abbey period; we almost feel the presence of the scrappy filmmakers on the other side of the camera, daring to spend a penny where others have spent a pound, and it’s exhilarating.
Pugh is fantastic, as immediate a nineteenth-century rebel as you could imagine; her line readings never betray the period yet feel bracingly modern. The whole film, indeed, pulls off that remarkable trick; every stitch of every bloomer and ruff feels authentic but the energy feels current, even though the cinematography and editing is formal and precise.
It’s that same crackling zip that ran through Clerks, Primer, Paranormal Activity and other high-achieving ultra-low budget labours of love and ambition; necessity really can be a mother of invention, and Lady Macbeth is inventive indeed, crisp, thrilling, sometimes very funny, and sharp as milk thistle. Unburdened by political correctness thanks to its source material, it offers a villainess who is totally willing to take us with her as far as our consciences allow, and then keep going. In a fresh 89 minutes we get a whopper of a tale.