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'Lady Macbeth' Is An Icy British Psychodrama About Power And Abuse


This is FRESH AIR. Film critic David Edelstein has a review of the new film "Lady Macbeth," set in rural England in 1865. It's inspired by a Russian novella, published that same year, about a provincial woman who becomes an adulterous and then a murderer.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: The icy British psycho-drama "Lady Macbeth" unfolds in the late 19th century, when a 17-year-old named Katherine is essentially bought from her working-class parents by an elderly Northern England industrialist to marry his 40-year-old son and give his estate an heir. This proves difficult since the abrasive son prefers Katherine to face the wall naked while he gazes on her without touching.

The son also commands Katherine to stay indoors. So by day, she sits on a sofa - her waist tightly corseted, her hoop skirt spread wide - attended by a maid who doesn't bond with her mistress in their shared servitude. The movie is stark and beautiful to watch - and be appalled by.

The director, William Oldroyd, made his name in the theater. And in his debut film, he largely confines Katherine to the severely plain household. He and cinematographer Ari Wegner establish the grinding unsensuality of the place without resorting to arty, overlong shots to make us literally experience her boredom. That boredom and the rage it engenders is magnificently expressed by the actress Florence Pugh.

Pugh was only 19 when Lady Macbeth was filmed, but she has the authority of a more seasoned performer. Her eyes flash with insolence while her throaty voice drips with irony and contempt. Defying her husband, she strides through Northumberland's windswept coastal moors - shots that evoke the heroines of Bronte and Hardy. But Northumberland borders the Scottish Lowlands, and Katherine's trace of a brogue allies her not just with women but other people subjugated over the centuries by England's conquerors.

That Katherine won't bear her insults and injuries long is broadly conveyed by the title, invoking one of Shakespeare's great demons. But the name is a bit misleading. The movie is adapted, with significant changes, from the 19th-century Russian Nikolai Leskov's novella "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk." And Leskov's protagonist doesn't have much in common with the Lady M who cries out to the gods to unsex her so feminine impulses won't interfere with butchering a king. Sex is what drives this Lady M. She has an affair with a ruffian servant, which emboldens her to strike back at her father-in-law, husband and anyone who threatens her. It's more like Emma Bovary meets Dracula's daughter.

In the first half of "Lady Macbeth," we are completely on Katherine's side, especially after the old master, played by Christopher Fairbank, hears of her carrying on with the servant Sebastian, whips the man to within an inch of his life and locks him in a stable. Although his son is absent, the old man is brutal enough for two.


FLORENCE PUGH: (As Katherine) Let him out.

CHRISTOPHER FAIRBANK: (As Boris) You are entirely without shame.

PUGH: (As Katherine) I have nothing to be ashamed of.

FAIRBANK: (As Boris) Nothing to be ashamed of? Do you have any idea of the damage that you are capable of bringing upon this family? You have failed miserably at every one of your marital duties - more specifically, to provide your husband with a legitimate heir.

PUGH: (As Katherine) Where is your son? Where is he? He has made that impossible. Let him out.


EDELSTEIN: A short time later, the decrepit industrialist humiliates the servant Anna, played with harrowing fragility by Naomi Ackie. And it's tempting to see Katherine's revenge as payback, not just for her own mistreatment but also the servants' - tempting but inaccurate. She makes common cause with no one but her lover, Sebastian. And even that relationship is fraught.

A crucial aspect of "Lady Macbeth" is its racial overtones, unacknowledged in dialogue but visually momentous. Anna is black. So is a little boy who appears some months after Katherine's husband mysteriously disappears, the offspring of the husband's affair with a black woman. The boy moves into the house and becomes scarily vulnerable to the newly empowered Katherine, who's torn between maternal instincts and the desire to be alone with her lover.

Even her lover is a racial signifier. The actor Cosmo Jarvis has Greek roots, and his dark complexion instantly brands him her social inferior, someone who could, if necessary, be thrown to the wolves. The racial aspect isn't part of Leskov's novel. It's an innovation by director Oldroyd and screenwriter Alice Birch. Their point, which I find irrefutable, is that some victims are not just inclined to speak truth to power but to abuse what power they have over people with even less of it.

"Lady Macbeth" eats into the mind, with its vision of evil as a contagion that transforms the brutalized into the brutalizing. It's steely determinism is devastating.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine.

On Monday's show, James Forman Jr. talks about his book "Locking Up Our Own," examining the role played by the African-American community and political leaders in creating the era of mass incarceration. We'll also talk about Foreman's life. He's the son of James Foreman, who headed the civil rights group SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. James Jr.'s grandmother was Jessica Mitford. Hope you can join us.


BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Edelstein
David Edelstein is a film critic for New York magazine and for NPR's Fresh Air, and an occasional commentator on film for CBS Sunday Morning. He has also written film criticism for the Village Voice, The New York Post, and Rolling Stone, and is a frequent contributor to the New York Times' Arts & Leisure section.