By John Duncan Talbird.
Although not well known today, Nikolai Leskov was a famous Russian writer in the 19th century admired by such contemporaries as Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov. A journalist and writer of novels and plays, he is most well-known today for his shorter fictional works: stories and novellas. Probably his most famous book is Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (1865), a dark novella about a bored landowner’s housewife who succumbs to lust and follows adultery with murder. One murder leads to another which leads to another in her swift, bleak fall. The book seems to speak to the gothic novels being written in England two thousand miles to the west and at the same time is predictive of the American noir films which would be made in America eighty years in the future. But there is something very Russian about Lady Macbeth: it reads like a lean Dostoyevsky, all the fat (and philosophizing) stripped out so that we have an almost nihilistic depiction of evil and lust. To use an architectural term, Leskov’s story has “good bones.” It was adapted into an opera by Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich in 1934 and it’s been adapted for film seven times, most famously by Polish director Andrzej Wajda in 1962. Wajda’s film often is referred to as an Eastern European noir, but it owes just as much to the deep-focus compositions of Kurosawa and mid-century American westerns. Narratively, it is very loyal to the original text.
The most recent incarnation of Leskov’s text is titled simply Lady Macbeth. Directed and written, respectively, by newcomers William Oldroyd and Alice Birch, it has been transplanted from 19th-century Russia to 19th-century England. The camera opens on titular character, Katherine, played by neophyte British actress Florence Pugh, on her wedding day to a middle-aged man with long, stringy hair. The twenty-one-year-old Pugh has the innocent look of a teenager so that minutes later, when the maid, Anna (Naomi Ackie), prepares her for her wedding night and asks her if she’s scared, we’re surprised when Katherine calmly responds “No,” but since there is no fear in her eyes we don’t doubt her. In the bedroom, when her husband tells her that she should stay indoors during the day and she asserts, even over his objections, that she likes the outdoors, we see that she’s not going to simply obey even if she’s not yet openly rebellious. He orders her to strip, she does, and then, apparently uninterested, he gets into bed and goes to sleep, leaving her standing there in the nude in the dark.
An interesting tonal shift has happened in this new adaptation. Whereas in the novel and Wajda’s adaptation, the story takes us into the illicit love affair quickly, Oldroyd lets the story unravel more slowly. We see the tedium of Katherine’s day, see the torture of her being tied into her corset in the morning, her back rubbed raw with soapstone at dusk, her hair violently combed in the evening. Her father-in-law (Christopher Fairbank) is a falsely pious hypocrite and is upfront about having bought her for his son to produce an heir. She is expected to read the Bible, to wait in-doors and look pretty, to visit with no one but the local minister, and to be ready for intercourse whenever her husband is ready. However, the husband (Paul Hilton) is apparently never ready. He makes his wife strip and face the wall while he masturbates. The indoor scenes are shot with stationary camera, long takes, cutting between dusty rooms in which Katherine fights to stay awake (Anna is made to sit with her to keep her up for her husband). However, when Katherine goes outdoors against her husband’s wishes, the perspective changes to a handheld camera that moves with a barely suppressed exhilaration even before we’re outside, in the house’s hallways, breaking into clean air, following Katherine closely to the shoreline. Ari Wegner’s cinematography of the heaths and shorelines of rural England – deep with earth tones and the gray of rock – are stunning, visualizing Katherine’s brief moments of freedom, the interiors claustrophobic, foreboding, and washed out.
When Katherine begins to have sex with the dirty, brutishly handsome farmhand, Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), we are not surprised. All the passion we have seen suppressed under the sterile male repression of her father-in-law’s household is free in their violent lovemaking. Their love affair doesn’t remain secret for long and Sebastian is beaten viciously and locked in a room. Katherine angrily confronts her father-in-law and we are not surprised when she then poisons him, in fact, by that point, we’re under her spell. She’s the least bad person in this terrible place (except for maybe Anna, but Anna is a servant and black, and therefore powerless; more about this later). Another way that the film feels different than Wadja’s or even the original text: Lady Macbeth is endowed with the British ambience of the 19th-century gothic, of the Brontës, Stoker, and Mary Shelly. There is something darkly magic about this Katherine. We don’t see her poison her father-in-law; he just conveniently dies. When Katherine kills her husband soon after, we take her side then too. The killing is self-defense, she coming to the aid of her endangered lover. In fact, we may think at this point that this is an empowering story, a subjugated woman treated like property, rising up against the patriarchy. However, while Sebastian buries the husband’s body, Katherine kills the husband’s horse to help cover their tracks. It’s a brutal scene and much easier to feel sympathy for the beautiful horse than the two horrible men she’s killed thus far and it’s the first time we begin to wonder if we’ve been tricked. True enough, these won’t be the last murders. Things will get a lot uglier before we’re through.
I’m reminded of John Hawkes’ classic experimental novel, The Lime Twig (1961). The book is about the heist of a racehorse that goes wrong. It’s got all the elements of a straightforward crime caper, but the plot is elliptical, the description of setting and event surreal and alternately comic, tragic, and grotesque. Flannery O’Connor said of this novel, “You suffer The Lime Twig like a dream. It seems to be something that is happening to you, that you want to escape from but can’t.” This could just as easily be a description of Lady Macbeth. By the time we realize who Katherine is, we’ve aligned ourselves with her and it is difficult to extricate ourselves from her spell. But just as with Hawkes’ novel, there is a strange dark humor in the film. Part of it arises from Pugh’s alternately chilling and light performance, her affect only deviating from a detached sort of ironic amusement during the sex scenes or in violent conflict. But part of the humor arises in stylistic choices, particularly canny editing by Nick Emerson: the poisoned father-in-law banging on a locked door cutting to Katherine posing for a photograph next to his dead body in a propped-up casket, Katherine eating alone at table cutting to the alternate chair where a mangy cat stares back at her.
Of course, Leskov’s novel and all the subsequent adaptations hearken back to their namesake, Shakespeare’s Macbeth. All of these narratives detail the fall of couples who murder for self-betterment and greed. However, unlike Shakespeare, Leskov is not interested in royalty or aristocracy, but in those who live closer to the ground. Leskov’s Katerina, her husband, and father-in-law are the modern equivalent of small business owners, her lover Sergei, a serf. Readers know that Katerina and Sergei are living in a fantasy world thinking that the lowly serf can’t simply take the husband’s place by murdering him even if they get away with the deed. The class divisions are too deep. When a child arrives, an apparent heir to the estate, it is ironic justice that Sergei is so easily displaced by that child. The story makes the trip from Russia to the UK easily; these class labels are just as fixed in 19th-century England. Sebastian can put on his master’s shirt, but he never seems completely clean; he looks as if he should be out walking the dog rather than lolling on a couch. One new way that this most recent version of Lady Macbeth deviates is its introduction of race into the narrative, a potential innovation which, as realized here, is the main weakness of the film. The maid Anna is played by an actress of African descent and so is the child, Anton Palmer, who plays the bastard son of Katherine’s husband who shows up with his imperial grandmother (Golda Rosheuvel) who demands what is rightly her grandson’s. Something very interesting could have been explored with this introduction of race into the narrative. However, it’s unclear if Oldroyd thought through how race would change the story. Slavery would have been outlawed a few decades prior to the time of the film and yet this is a strangely colorblind world. The boy’s grandmother is unrealistically demanding and entitled for someone who, if she hadn’t been born into slavery, surely is the child of someone who was. Likewise, Anna seems to be on the same footing as all of the other servants, no more no less (there is a disturbing scene where the white farmhands, including Sebastian, have stripped and hung her in a blanket to “weigh her,” but this scene seems to be more related to her gender than her ethnicity). The role of racism in this harshly sexist and classist society would have been a fresh perspective on this much-adapted story, but the result here is mostly unexamined. Still, for a first production, William Oldroyd has crafted a clever and chilling historical crime film. He has brought something new to the old story and created a world which dwells in both reality and fairy tale. This sure production augurs more and better films in the future from this new director.
John Duncan Talbird is the author of the limited edition book of stories, A Modicum of Mankind (Norte Maar) with images by artist Leslie Kerby. His fiction and essays have appeared in Ploughshares, Juked, The Literary Review, Amoskeag, Ambit and elsewhere. He is an English professor at Queensborough Community College.