Florence Pugh gives an outstanding lead performance in Lady Macbeth, which I finally caught up with this evening at my local arts centre.
Alice Birch’s screenplay, based on Nikolai Leskov’s novel, has relocated the narrative to the north of England in the 19th Century. Pugh plays Catherine, a young bride sold into a lifeless marriage with an unloving, boorish, sexually cruel middle-aged man who insists she remain indoors. However, Catherine is determined not to be a helpless victim. When her husband is away, Catherine defies him by walking on the moors, drinking all her (even more unpleasant) father-in-law’s favourite vintage and also begins a passionate, ill-advised affair with bit-of-rough farmhand Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis). For a while things get all “Heathcliffe and Cathy”, before taking a turn into much darker territory, as the extent of Catherine’s Machiavellian plans become apparent.
Director William Oldroyd eschews the cosy trappings of the period drama, instead opting for a spare, stripped-down aesthetic that really has dirt under its fingernails. The sound design is as important as the visuals, with howling winds amid the bleak moors adding to the atmosphere. Influences obviously include Wuthering Heights, but oddly enough the films I was most reminded of were The Talented Mr Ripley and The Godfather Part II. Murder, more murder and the ravages of conscience come into play. Will Catherine demonstrate the nerves of steel required for her increasingly appalling actions, or will her sins find her out? I should add warnings for sex, strong violence and very strong language. A cosy Austen adaptation this ain’t…
In the end, it is Pugh’s superb turn that holds the drama together. With seemingly effortless subtlety she initially conveys a repressed yet wild, rebellious nature, before the narrative reveals much more destructive forces at work in her heart, even as she tries to keep up appearances of sullen obedience. The promise of her supporting role in The Falling is demonstrated even more by this central role, and she will continue to be a name to watch.