Friday, August 4

REVIEW: Lady Macbeth

Directed by William Oldroyd
2016 Period Drama
1 hour 29 mins
From Roadside Attractions

Florence Pugh
Cosmo Jarvis
Paul Hilton
Naomi Ackie
Christopher Fairbank

Now, come on, who doesn't enjoy a good Florence Pugh movie or a sizzling Cosmo Jarvis portrayal?  Oh, I kid Pugh and Jarvis but I am not kidding you when I say you may not enjoy it even though I obviously did (noting my 3 stars as you have).  Do you like English period stuff?  You like it kind of austere and rather slow?  You do? Oh, well then, I change my mind.  You might like this just as much as I have.

Let's tell you a little about it... little being the operative word.  You see, there are some murders in this peaceful, bucolic atmosphere and you know as well as I do that it would be positively monstrous of me to say too much.  Maybe alerting you to the murders... that simple statement... is saying too much but for certain I can't say a great deal more about that.

We'll fill you in on the title.  No one in the film has the name of Macbeth nor is the word even mentioned.  The screenplay is based on a novel called Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District by Nikolai Leskov although it is obviously a shout-out to Shakespeare's famous treacherous female character.

We open in 1865 England with a full screen of Ms. Pugh's lovely but stoic face outlined by a veil.  She appears transfixed as she enters into an arranged marriage.  She has, in fact, been sold (along with a plot of land) by her future father-in-law to his son, a bitter, older man who hasn't the slightest intention of consummating their marriage. There's an allusion that the coupling was for procreative reasons but somebody apparently forgot to give this man the ABCs of getting there.

It looks like it's going to be a dreary if not unforgiving existence for her.  She is even cautioned about going out of doors and we are all completely aware that no one in the house gives her much leeway. Her father-in-law is a mean s.o.b., her husband is a loser and she has an odd relationship with her maid who spies on her.

One day her husband and father-in-law go off somewhere for weeks and our heroine, needing desperately to be spoiled, latches onto a randy groomsman who works for her husband.  She appears surprised when everyone in the land seems to know what she's up to, paying little mind that they cavort all over the house that has servants who have worked in the household far longer than she has been there and are more loyal to the master of the house.

Yes, she acts surprised but she also acts lethally.  Despite the fact we see it coming (never forgetting the title for a moment), it is astonishing seeing some of the events unfurl. Katherine is a character who, when crossed, goes out of her mind and yet never loses her angelic quality.  She gives new meaning to the expression lady killer.  And because of this, the film takes on a creepy, psychological thriller veneer without ever being cheesy or entirely

Perhaps what I liked so much about it is it gave a new twist to the usual period English stories of which I am so fond.  This is not Jane Austen.  It's that psychological thriller part you'll want to keep in mind. 

My partner didn't particularly care for it and said he nearly fell asleep in the first third.  Too slow, he whined.  He said he would never watch it again while I can't wait to add it to my personal collection.  Well, listen, ok, it is slow.  In some ways, I think it needs to be.  Life in this rural community wasn't exactly thrumming with activity.  It was necessary to show how slow and dull things were for her, necessary to show her anguish.  Once said, some unnecessary slowness would come like this:  she silently walks into a room without other people in it, sits on a sofa, staring at the camera while we stare back and it seems like an eternity until someone else enters the room and the scene continues.  Not good and the problem, of course, is that it turns some people off.  I, however, am not among them and the pace picks up certainly picks up as the story unfolds.

At the top of a stack of accolades is a force-of-nature performance from Florence Pugh.  (She couldn't have changed that name?)  It is a mesmerizing, startling performance, most unforgettable.  There are skills in her performance that belie the fact that this is just her second film and that she is a mere 21 years old.  It's a testament to her and the writing that despite her horrific deeds, we still regard her as somewhat of a sympathetic character throughout.  That is so hard to pull off... and pretty weird to feel.  I walked out of the theater knowing that I should quite dislike her as a character and the truth was I didn't.

Pugh's name has already been added to my rather lengthy list of British actors I adore and always have.  In my estimation they are, along with some Aussies, the best in the world.  

I do think it would have been more prudent to have provided some background on Katherine.  We know nothing about her prior to her wedding day.  I am not suggesting that we add 30 more minutes to the story but there could have been some dialogue about it. Couldn't the husband have asked some pertinent questions about a woman he married without knowing?

Jarvis distinguishes himself in the role of a mixed-race stud who
brings about a woman's sexual awakening.  He certainly knows a
thing or two about throwing working horizontally.  He is a far cry from her husband and she can no longer be reined in.  Since they have it all over the place, this film has a fair amount of sex scenes (be warned or primed).  One doesn't see much more than their backsides and yet these scenes are romantic and erotic. But sex schmex, you wait to see how this develops.

I applaud the performances of father and son, Christopher Fairbank and Paul Hilton, each of whom nailed rather unpleasant characters. Naomi Ackie, in her mostly silent role, displayed more shades of a maid than we are usually treated to.  Lucky her.  Lucky us.

The cherry on the top of the milkshake is this was directed by a first-timer for a feature by theater director, William Oldroyd, who clearly seemed to know what he was doing.  I rarely ever say that about a director's maiden effort.  He was certainly smart enough to know he had to give full expression to his remarkable leading lady.

Where has this film been?  It was shown and won some honors at a number of international festivals nearly a year ago.  It is one of those with a gazillion worldwide production companies associated with it (and the mind-numbingly endless logos at the beginning of the film) so perhaps there were some testy business decisions behind it all.

I could in some ways compare it to another film we reviewed not long ago, Sofia Coppola's The Beguiled.  It, too, is a sexually-charged look into women in command in the most unexpected and cruel ways but Lady Macbeth is far better and less clumsy.

Next posting:
A good 70s movie

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