Director William Oldroyd’s film aims, in his own words, to ‘unstarch the period drama’. Adapted from Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 novel Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk by screenwriter Alice Birch, and transposed to the North East of England, it falls perilously close between Catherine Cookson and a murder ballad.
When wilful teenager Katherine (The Falling‘s Florence Pugh) is married off, effectively sold, to boorish impotent older man Alexander Lester (Paul Hilton) whose idea of foreplay is telling her to undress, he is sent off on business, and she finds a lover in stablehand Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis) whom she first encounters abusing Anna (Naomie Ackie) her maid, and one-time ally. He practically forces himself on Katherine, which of course as all bad period dramas tell us, is how to charm a woman. Blurred Lines, by way of Poldark.What a keeper, eh, ladies.
As if this were not all questionable enough, Katherine commits a series of murders, all carried out with an eerily impassive stance, and the initial sympathy felt for her is dissipated. Pugh is undoubtedly a fine actor with a rich expressive face, suggesting a rich inner life- a shame then, that all of the characters are so despicable (bar one, an innocent brought in towards the end) and that she is given little to do other than shag, mope around, and kill.
Ari Wegner’s cinematography is glorious, picking out cracks in the austere household, as tightly constricting as Katherine’s corsets.Unfortunately, by piling on the symbolism (wild moors suggesting sexual liberation; a dead horse for a decaying marriage) there is no subtlety, no sense of nuance or negotiation within the plotlines.Anna becomes mute, which seems too convenient as a plotpoint.
There are some wonderful visual flourishes and humour: Anna’s through the keyhole voyeurism; Katherine standing next to an upright body in a coffin like a tableaux, a quick edit from frenetic sex to tea with the vicar. Yet for all of its intentions, this handsome-looking film can only allude to themes of patriarchy and racism in a heavy-handed way, rendering it ridiculous, almost to levels of parody. A pity, as it starts off with much promise, and there are some finely judged moments.
Part of Glasgow Film Festival, on general release in cinemas in April