Nikolai Leskov's nineteenth century Russian novel about a bored housewife driven to an affair is given the big screen treatment in debut-feature director William Oldroyd's handsome and beautifully acted new film. The story is transposed to northern England but kept in period and stars the charismatic and intense Florence Pugh (THE FALLING) as the titular wife, Katherine, married off to the son of a local landowner and expected to provide an heir despite his evident distaste for her. Bored literally to sleep and sexually frustrated, she begins an affair with the groomsman, Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), with a recklessness that draws the attention of the household staff and eventually her father in law and husband who return home in succession to restore discipline. So far so predictable - this is the stuff of Bovary and Chatterley. What's different here is that Katherine is an incredibly strong - perhaps controversially strong - character, who will not allow herself to be betrayed and tossed aside as Emma Bovary was. And for those familiar with the Leskov text, or indeed the Shostakovich opera, screenwriter Alice Birch makes narrative choices that further emphasise the control and power that Katherine exerts.
The resulting film is beautifully shot on a micro-budget, making a virtue of its limitations. The action is confined largely to the house and there are only a handful of characters - emphasising the claustrophobia of Katherine's life. Even the lack of different costumes serves to underscore the dull routine of her life. In front of the lens, Florence Pugh is stunning as Katherine, showing her strength, intensity but wilful recklessness. I also very much liked Naomi Ackie as Anna, Katherine's maid, who is struck dumb with horror at what she witnesses and yet is utterly expressive. I felt a bit sorry for Cosmo Jarvis who has very little to do other than be objectified. There's an attempt at a kind of ethical growth at the end of the film but I didn't find it particularly convincing. This is truly a film that puts its heroine front and centre. And the result is intense, sometimes funny, but rightly disturbing by its ending.
LADY MACBETH has played a number of festivals including Toronto, London and San Sebastian (where it won the FIPRESCI prize). It opens in France on April 12th, in the UK on April 28th and in the USA on June 2nd. The film has a running time of 89 minutes and has not yet been rated.
SPOILERS: What I found particularly fascinating in this adaptation is Birch's choice to have Katherine turn on Sebastian and to get away with her crimes. The final shot of the film sees her dominant, in possession of the house and land that has imprisoned her, but also tragic and alone, without the lover that she committed the crimes to protect. It's a strong image and to some extent a feminist one, in contrast with the tragic fate of the heroine of the novel, who is punished for her transgressions with an icy death, still fighting for the man who has betrayed her. The novel's heroine is thus ultimately weak and corrupted by her frustration - a pawn of men to the last. Whereas Katherine is empowered, although how far one can take this empowerment seriously depends on how far one thinks of her as a psychopath or in control of decisions. At any rate, I love the more provocative choice taken by the film. My feelings for Katherine were ambitious - pity, empathy but also horror at her actions.