As a student of 19th Century literature, the opportunity to review Lady Macbeth, from BBC Films, was instantly appealing. The title conjures up themes of murder and madness but even so, I was still shocked by William Oldroyd's screen adaptation of Russian novel, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District.
Other film critics have likened the film to a Hitchcock-esque treatment of Wuthering Heights and a far more sinister version of My Cousin Rachel. I can't beat these analogies. They perfectly characterise the movie.
For me, Lady Macbeth trumps every gothic, psychological drama I've devoured over the years. Lead characters Katherine and Sebastian make Cathy and Heathcliff look like amateurs at that whole passion, obsession and cruelty caper.
I agree with critics that this is a well-executed movie but can I say I liked it? I struggle with fiction that lacks a moral compass and redeeming characters, so no, I can't say I liked it. Having said that, this film is thought-provoking and will no doubt provide a welcome challenge to serious film-goers.
The story is set in 1865 in rural England and portrays the harsh realities of sexual and marital politics in Victorian England. Young heroine Katherine represents a severe case of female subjugation and isolation in a loveless marriage, completely devoid of power or kinship. From this experience of cruelty and neglect, the young woman develops a kind of late onset sociopathy, which has disastrous consequences. She embarks on an obsessively doomed affair with stable hand Sebastian, a young man of seeming amorality and a rather menacing sexual force.
Director Oldroyd masterfully portrays the rugged isolation of the moorland setting for Katherine's domestic imprisonment and the awakening of his heroine's mad passion. Early indications of a natural rebelliousness in 'Lady Macbeth's' character, take on epic proportions when the sexual freedom she discovers with Sebastian, is threatened by social proprieties.
The face of a sociopath? Florence Pugh skilfully portrays Katherine's descent into amorality
At only 89 minutes, which is incredibly succinct for a period film, the story delivers a vast amount of drama and will have you on the edge of your seat. Will Katherine's web of deception and violence unravel, or will she escape unscathed?
The cast is strong, with standout female performances from Florence Pugh as the increasingly malevolent Katherine and Naomi Ackie as the terrified and completely vulnerable housemaid Annie, the only character who remains sympathetic (though frustrating) for the film's entirety.
Like the Shakespearean icon it is named for, Lady Macbeth is an interesting study in human psychology. You can't blame Katherine for wanting revenge against those who wrong her, nor wanting to live with passion but can you forgive a pattern of behaviour in which the oppressed become the oppressor? This didn't sit well with me, nor did the unexpected turnaround in the moral sensibilities of Sebastian, which seemed rushed at the denouement and altogether futile.
You can tell when an audience is left in shock at the close of a film. It usually means the film is a great piece of cinema but the viewer is flawed by the absolute antithesis of a happy ending.
So, by all means, see this well-received film if you are a fan of period and gothic drama. It's always best to make up your own mind but if you think you've seen it all, you'd do well to think again.