People usually talk about Shakespeare’s ‘Big Four’ – Hamlet, Lear, Othello and Macbeth – as his pre-eminent works. I wouldn’t argue with that. If the first three have a fault it’s that few members of their casts can hold a candle to the main character.
Not so with Macbeth. Lady Macbeth matches her husband pound for pound in all the scenes they share together. Indeed, it’s she who’s primarily responsible for turning him into the monster he becomes.
I went to this film imagining it to be a revisionist version of Shakespeare’s play. A few minutes into it, I realised it bore no relation to Shakespeare at all.
It’s based on an 1865 novella from a Russian author, Nikolai Leskov. So why did he call it Lady Macbeth? I still don’t know. The main character doesn’t even go by that name.
Florence Pugh plays Katherine, a young woman bought auction-style by a cruel mine owner called Boris (Christopher Fairbank) as a bride for his equally cold middle-aged son Alexander (Paul Hilton).
The marriage is a disaster from the word go. It isn’t long before Katherine finds herself in a tempestuous affair with one of Boris’ servants, Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis).
The film is directed in minimalist style by William Oldroyd. Its scenes of sex and violence shock one even more because of such minimalism.
The manner in which Katherine turns from an apparently normal lass to one of the most horrific creatures in contemporary cinema is enough to take your breath away. One reviewer cleverly dubbed the film as “Wuthering Heights directed by Alfred Hitchcock”.
If I describe it as a success I do so in the way Philip Larkin once said a ‘good’ poem about failure is a success. Oldroyd has succeeded in portraying a woman so utterly devoid of virtue, so lacking in compassion, as to be perversely rivetting.
Maybe this is where the comparison to Shakespeare’s anti-heroine comes in. But if Macbeth’s wife was monstrous in many respects, she also had a sensitive side. “All the perfumes of Arabia cannot sweeten this little hand,” she says at one point as her guilt starts to gnaw at her. (Was she literature’s first OCD sufferer?)
Katherine has no such pangs of conscience. Whether dispensing with her husband or killing a horse she maintains a froideur that’s utterly revolting. At first I thought Pugh looked too modern for the role but as the film went on I felt she was ideal for it.
Lady Macbeth, needless to say, isn’t for general consumption. It’s been a hit on the art circuit but won’t be to the taste of those who look for redeeming features in their leading characters.
Oldroyd takes us on an odyssey through venality and doesn’t stop half way. He’s as unflinching in his resolve as is his main character, showing us the smothering of an innocent child with the same nonchalance as he films a cat slinking across a room.