Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Mar 08, 2017 6:48 pm 
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A wild young lass

William Oldroyd's elegant, arresting and economical film is based on an 1865 Russian novella, Nikolai Lescov's Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, whose strong links with Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, Lady Chatterley, and other rebellious women make it eternally contemporary. (Lady Macbeth explains the extra gore.) In its new English setting it seems quite strange. But how could it not, in any setting, since it depicts a young woman who has a raging affair with her husband's groom while he's away, poisons her father-in-law, then bludgeons her husband to death, smothers his young ward, and pins the murder on the groom and a woman servant? But such is its boldness of execution and the adeptness of the actors, especially the spirited 21-year-old Florence Pugh, we simply watch with astonishment, amusement, then horror.

There is a new strain of color introduced into this version of the story. Anna (Naomi Ackie), who's the personal maid to Katherine (Florence Pugh), is black; the groom who's beaten by her husband, Sebastian (songwriter Cosmo Jarvis), looks mestizo, and her husband Alexander (Paul Hilton) turns out to have fathered a black child, Teddy (Anton Palmer). This helps to give the story a contemporary edge. The fact that events aren't quite period-appropriate is a strength, causing us to take everything on its own unique merits. The source, like the German 19th-century novel used as the source for the musical Spring Awakening, was lurid and radical to begin with. It also was the basis for an opera that got Shostakovich into trouble with the Soviets, and has had other treatments on film and TV.

Much depends on Florence Pugh, and the simple, attractive staging of the action, which was shot (on a relatively tight budget) at an estate in rugged Northumberland (with the cast deftly mimicking the local brogue). The house is austere yet grand, with lovely wild views out the big windows, and seems filled exclusively with big Victorian furniture that fits the cruelty and distance of young Katherine's husband, whose sex habits are creepy and dried up. Katherine is pressed to stay indoors, but constantly lured to walks in the rugged meadows and hillsides: there's a pull between the solid, often symmetrical framing of indoor shots and the fluid, shaky cam shooting of the external wilds. We see Anna strap Katherine into girdles and braces and undo them, showing how she's both controlled and unbridled. This movie is buttoned up and in control of itself too, but in close touch with madness and sensuality. By letting the house and the outer landscape speak for themselves, first time filmmaker and theatrical veteran Oldroyd keeps things fresh and distinctive-feeling.

Oldroyd and his cast have plenty of action to keep our attention and the forward thrust is constant. This version leaves the wrongdoing unpunished, adding a provocative modern note. After it's all over you may need some time to get your mind around what you've seen. There is a recurring image of Katherine sitting on a sofa, in various full-dress outfits, staring directly into the camera, as if taking stock, and letting us see what further stage of outrageousness she has reached. This is the one essential moment when the action stops for breath. Pugh keeps her character's enormous capacity for revolt and violence just below the surface most of the time in a performance that shows the beginnings of a star. In its way Lady Macbeth is really quite exhilarating.

Lady Macbeth, 89 mins., debuted at Toronto Sept. 2016, playing in at least 17 other international festivals including San Sebastian, Zurich, London and Sundance. Screened for this review as part of the 2017 New Directors/New Films.

June 6: NYC, LA releases scheduled for July 14, 2017. Metacritic rating: 76%.

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