The British period drama is an institution. And a billion pound industry built on bonnets and breeches, which has been the cornerstone of British cinema since its birth in the dark old days of black and white film, inter-titles, and live musical accompaniment. The formula is an enduring and profitable one: toffs, scenery, and romance; from Pride and Prejudice, remade countless times for film and television, to Downton Abbey, the TV ratings juggernaut about gentry versus plebs. And I’ll confess, I’ve never been a fan of the bonnet-buster. Underneath the genre’s staples of intricately laced corsets and refined manners, it could be argued there has always been a deep-seated moral conservatism and provincial outlook, which has stifled cinematic reinvention and boundary-pushing drama within the landscape of ubiquitous country piles and windswept moors.
Lady Macbeth dares to be different. Very different, in fact. William Oldroyd the British theatre director, who turned more than a few heads with his fellatio-centric short film Best (2013), and won the Sundance London’s short film competition, makes his feature debut with this mesmerising and yet brutal adaptation of Nikolai Leskov’s book Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. We meet the lady in question, Katherine (Florence Pugh), wide-eyed and nervous, with her dour-faced husband Alexander (Paul Hilton) on their wedding day, bathed in hazy Borders’ sunlight. Yes, it may be grim up North, but it is certainly brighter. And it is this juxtaposition of almost dream-like rural life set against the pitch-black darkness, lurking in the hearts of the embattled souls living off the land, which permeates every frame.
The wedding night in most period dramas are pretty vanilla, a few loving words, the unbuttoning of garments, and maybe a passionate kiss or two, before the scene tastefully fades out. Katherine is forced to strip naked, berated by her husband, and told to stand with her face against the wall. Alone, cold, and humiliated, Katherine fights back tears as the scene fades out on her despair… Not the stuff Jane Austin novels are made of really. And Katherine’s torment continues, as she’s treated like a porcelain doll, strapped into a corset, squeezed into a long and flowing blue dress, and whiles away her days silently on a living room settee.
Katherine’s trophy existence is completely at odds with her outdoorsy and free-spirited upbringing. But instead of sliding into meek compliance with the household’s overbearing patriarchy, embodied none more so than by her snarling father-in-law Boris (Christopher Fairbank), Katherine rebels and capitalises on an explosion at the family-owned colliery that sends the men of the house away, she roams freely over the estate and catches the eye of a young worker, Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis). In a rough bedroom encounter – maybe seen as a little rapey in this “#Me Too” era, Kathrine and Sebastian begin a carnal affair that insidiously blights the estate in the most Bardian of ways.
The ill-fated lovers obsessive and broiling romance is predominantly scored by sound designer Ben Baird’s recordings of diegetic sounds, like the rhythmic clunking of Kathrine’s leather soled shoes on the manor house’s bare floorboards, and the hideous shrieks of a dying horse, amplifies the on-screen drama rather than diminishes it. Without doubt, it is a bold choice to loose the lush orchestra accompaniment so often used to pull at the audience’s heartstrings, and it isn’t the only one. William Oldroyd, screenwriter Alice Birch, and producer Fodhla Cronin O’Reilly, all chose to colour-blind cast the film, wanting the best actor for the role regardless of ethnicity. And this adds further complexity to the unannounced arrival of Agnes (Golda Rosheuvel), with a claim to the family’s fortune, highlighting interracial relationships that existed at the time, but were kept utterly clandestine. And then there’s the violence, not gratuitous by any means, but there is one head-busting scene that could join Gaspar Noe’s blunt force trauma club. Underneath the film’s Victorian era decor and provincial manners is a progressive period drama that flouts convention.
And it is hard not to be enthralled by Kathrine, she just doesn’t give a f… she drinks French wine like a fish, loves beyond reason, and murders with abandon. But what some might call female empowerment, I feel hides the darker truth that power is genderless, and self-interest and preservation born from greed will always lead to the suffering of the poorest, weakest, and marginalised in any period.