Dark candle in a dark room

Reader, we are not in Jane Austen country anymore. Any Austen adaptation must end in a marriage, whereas Lady Macbeth starts with one, not a happy affair, and it gets worse from here on out. The source of this story is, of course, that famous Scottish play, and then there is Nikolai Leskov’s novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District from 1865, which is said to be loosely based on a real crime. William Oldroyd’s movie, from a screenplay by Alice Birch, could have approached the character of Lady Macbeth from one of those angles. Instead, the movie shows us a young bride called Katherine who initially does not object to be married to a wealthy nobleman who resides in a bleak, solitary country estate. The troubles start during their wedding night: the husband is a gruff alcoholic and under his father’s thumb. He orders her to undress and face the wall, and then he puts out the light and goes to sleep. She discovers that he is impotent and wants to keep her indoors. The mood of the movie has more in common with Wuthering Heights than any Merchant-Ivory movie.

Katherine starts to rebel. Her husband away on business, she has to obey her father-in-law, but falls asleep out of sheer boredom. She goes to bed when she likes and gives sarcastic answers to strict orders. Her father-in-law tells her to stay awake until her husband enters the bedroom, which is sometimes way past midnight. Her maidservant Anna (Naomi Ackie) has the job to keep her awake. Soon, Katherine decides enough is enough and leaves the house for a stroll on the heath, and she meets… well, not Heathcliff, but it might just as well be him. His name is Sebastian, he is her husband’s stablehand, played by Cosmo Jarvis, and soon enough they start a wild affair.

There was a point early on when I found myself cheering for Katherine. Good on her, I thought, she wants to be recognized as a person, with equal rights. She might be ahead of her time and asking and risking too much, but it will make for good drama. Then there is that scene where all the stablehands, including Sebastian, seem to weigh a sow in a sack, but it turns out to be Anna, naked and scared. Katherine does not berate them for abusing Anna, but for squandering their master’s, her husband’s, time and money. Then she asks how much she would weigh. Katherine might have shown some kind of moral strenght, but that scene really shows a first crack in her conscience. Instead of protecting Anna, she tentatively flirts with Sebastian.

The movie is Oldroyd’s first feature, but it’s very well made. The only criticism is that it is really rather forseeable: as soon as Katherine and Sebastian embark on their amour fou, it’s clear that whoever stands in the way of it, must go. What redeems the whole enterprise is Florence Pugh in the title role. It’s a pleasure to watch her stand her ground and going up against a patriarchal system that essentially tells her to sit still and shut up. Pugh’s performance is one of the best performances in a long time; just look at her assessing the situation and then starting her scheme. There are moments where she seems entirely genuine, but as soon as she is alone in a room, she takes a deep breath. Why? Depends. Sometimes she is acting her part, sometimes other people exhaust her because they won’t do her bidding. Whatever she does, it brings her closer to Sebastian, and everybody else still left must live in her nightmare.

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