This is a strange one, and perhaps one of those where what you get out of it depends upon how you approach it. Ostensibly a period drama, I went into it expecting something like a revisionary Jane Eyre, akin, as perhaps the title might suggest, to the rework of Shakespeare’s Macbeth that was Justin Kurzel’s 2015 film. As it turned out, I wasn’t far off, but it still came as something of a surprise/shock.
The Shakespeare angle, you see, is something of a red herring. Actually based on an 1895 novel by Russian author Nikolai Leskov, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, itself inspired by Shakespeare’s Macbeth, this film by William Oldroyd transplants the original book’s Russian locale to nineteenth century Northern England. Florence Pugh, who is pretty mesmerizing throughout, plays Katherine, a young woman who is married off to Alexander (Paul Hilton), the son of a wealthy mine-owner, Boris (Christopher Fairbank), who has arranged the marriage like some kind of land-deal. While we see the wedding service, we don’t see Alexander, the focus purely on Katherine who looks lost, a fish out of water, as if she has been transplanted to some other world she does not understand. When we eventually do see Alexander, it is on the wedding night, which proves disastrous, the wedding unconsummated. And it all goes downhill from there- lies, betrayal, adultery, murder.
I have seen the film referred to as a Victorian Noir, and that pretty much nails it. This is a twisted, subversive tale that is part period drama and part horror tale. It isn’t perfect – much of the character motivations are too lightly skimmed over, so that the characters suddenly seem to take actions that are out of left-field and so don’t wholly convince. Overall, the film therefore feels rather disjointed- Pugh is, as I’ve noted, pretty mesmerizing and she easily dominates the whole thing, but even then, her own actions often feel unexplained at times and its hard to sympathize with her in the latter half. Initially she is clearly the victim but by turns she becomes the villain, utterly without any redemption at the end. I suppose that is perhaps the whole point of the film -and the Macbeth in the title- but it feels a little unearned. We don’t really get ‘into’ her psyche.
Certainly well worth a watch though.