Cinematic Releases: Lady Macbeth (2017) - Reviewed

Transitioning from stage to the big screen can be a daunting task. Accomplished theater director William Oldroyd's phenomenal debut feature film, Lady Macbeth is a pitch black deconstruction of the period romance, delving into noir archetypes and complex sexual and gender politics as it paints its soiled canvas of lust and violence. Featuring a flawless lead performance by Florence Pugh, blustery cinematography, and a deliciously vicious narrative, Oldroyd delivers a subtle headshot to an overstuffed genre that captivates from its elusive first frames.

Katherine is sold into a loveless marriage with a sexually inept noble in Northern England. Left to her own devices, she begins a dangerous affair with a servant that devolves into a lethal examination of truth and perspective. Alice Birch's screenplay is trimmed down to the essentials. It is clear, due to Pugh's masterful command of the material, that this is a woman's story, written by a woman who is unafraid to explore uncomfortable topics with respect to fidelity, sexual freedom, and the power of position. Power transitions throughout the film, with each wielder, be it lofty aristocrat, inconvenient bastard, or duplicitous servant; showcasing how the definition of control is a fluid animal when pomp and circumstance are metaphorical prisons for faux-polite society. 

Florence Pugh is a perilous marvel. Her sexuality is potent and natural, a byproduct of repression and station that is used as a means of liberation, rather than a tool to manipulate. Her Katherine is wily and free through her own machinations, rather than relying on sexual pawns to complete her dangerous endgame. This is a remarkable performance, without a stand out Oscar bait exchange. There are no lengthy monologues or high pitched exaltations. Violence is abrupt and merciless, with everything spinning around Pugh's devious, but relatable antihero. 

Race related undertones are also represented, with Cosmo Jarvis giving an understated turn as Katherine’s lover Sebastian and Naomi Ackie stealing a plethora of scenes as Katherine’s on again off again lady in waiting. Race is never explicitly addressed, with concepts of station masking inequality as a blatant symbol for the barbarity of a “civilized” time. Station and race are interchangeable, with one particular scene in the final act underscoring the outrageous and sadly common manipulation of truth by those with power over those without. 

Ari Wegner's erudite cinematography builds an aura of dread around the proceedings at a perfectly glacial pace. Filmed in Northumberland, the natural shots of the countryside are hauntingly beautiful, capturing both the isolation of the time alongside the inherent danger that plagues Katherine's manse. Gorgeous interior shots are flooded with natural light that play key parts in the mischief as it unfolds. Understated edits help to complete the picture, ensuring nothing is spoon fed to the viewer. Things happen naturally, yet nothing is ultimately surprising once the audience has spent an ample amount of time with the inhabitants of the house. The mystique and danger of gossip and intent are the most lethal occupants in Oldroyd's Victorian potboiler, and they work in tandem with the illustrious elements on display to create an unforgettable experience.

In theaters now, such as The Naro Expanded Cinema for Tidewater natives, Lady Macbeth is one of 2017's most audacious offerings. Blending Florence Pugh's unforgettable (and hopefully Oscar nominated) performance, ethereal visual compositions, and Oldroyd's patient command, this is one of the greatest debut films in recent memory.

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-Kyle Jonathan