Lady Macbeth – not based on the Shakespearian character but the 1865 novel written by Nikolai Leskov – is an exciting period drama and a fantastic piece of British cinema. If a solid screenplay is the foundation of a great film, then the Lady Macbeth screenplay is like a bar of gold. It’s simple yet so eloquently written and director William Oldroyd builds on Alice Birch’s script marvellously. The protagonist turned villain, Katherine (Florence Pugh), is a young woman sold and then married off to a middle-aged Lord. Bored and unhappy with her old, unloving husband, she starts sleeping with one of his young workers and the two soon fall in love. Determined to continue their affair, Katherine commits a series of unspeakable acts to guarantee the future of their forbidden relationship. Like the many other cruel and calculated women we’ve seen in film, she embodies determination and tenacity, allowing nothing or no-one to stand between her and what she wants.
It features a very small cast which helps keep the story intense and focused. Christopher Fairbank plays Boris, Katherine’s father in law; his convincing performance as this cold-hearted man will have you flinching every time he appears on screen. Naomi Ackie plays Anna, the black house-maid. She’s a witness to Katherine’s obscenities but keeps quiet in fear of the consequences; you feel her pain, her fear, her sadness. The film is set on the family grounds and the vast countryside surrounding it acts as a backdrop for Katherine’s illicit behaviour. Even amongst the beautiful landscape, it’s Florence Pugh who is breathtaking. Her performance as Katherine is beyond exceptional; every barked command and every wicked act is performed so naturally. Her transition from rebellious woman to wicked witch takes all of a second. Pugh is without a doubt one to watch. She adds complexity to Katherine which makes her all the more enthralling; she’s likable yet horrid, sweet yet vindictive. Despite her monstrous actions, it’s somehow hard to hate the woman. Perhaps it’s her refusal to fit into the patriarchal society she lives in, she’s only bound to her husband by law and at her core she’s an independent woman.
The pace of the film is near perfect. A lot happens in its short running time of only 89 minutes but the story never feels rushed. Oldroyd unfolds it slowly and purposefully, making the film tense but not overtly so. It doesn’t feature any music, not even as the credits roll. The strong performances are enough to drive the film forward and the silent pauses throughout the film are almost a soundtrack within themselves. They enhance the underlying tension in each scene, adding to film’s dark tone. Lady Macbeth is not without its faults however; the sound quality is a bit poor at times and the camera framing can be a bit too abstract, but these are only minor flaws in this close-to-impeccable film. Oldroyd sticks to the basics in this minimalistic picture and the result speaks for itself. Lady Macbeth is proof that the only things really needed to make a decent film are a solid script, some good actors and a brave enough director.