- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 18, 2017


Perhaps the most amazing aspect of the new film “Lady Macbeth” is that it leaves the audience almost entirely unsure of whom to root for. If this sounds like a complaint, it is anything but, as William Oldroyd’s film, based on the Russian play “Lady Macbeth of Mtsenskof” by Nikolai Leskov, translates the bloodletting of “the Scottish play” into an anti-tragedy of utter moral vacancy.

For in tragedy, there must be some semblance of guilt for our main character; alas, Katherine, the antiheroine of the new film, has Lady Macbeth’s ambitions and bloodthirst, but none of the associated guilt that ultimately undoes her in Shakespeare’s play.

Guilt, in “Lady Macbeth,” belongs solely to the poor souls she entraps in her misdeeds.

As Katherine, the English actress Florence Pugh instills her character with far more wrath and lack of remorse than might otherwise be believed given Miss Pugh’s 21 years on this planet. It’s an enchanting, delicate performance, made all the more so by Miss Pugh’s amazing ability to make us feel both sympathy and revulsion for Katherine throughout the film’s brisk 89 minutes.

“Lady Macbeth” opens with a scene of piousness, which will be the last time God and his elements will play any part in this tale. Katherine, her face hidden behind a vale, is seen in church, singing old Anglican hymns on the day she is betrothed to the odious Alexander (Paul Hilton). That she does not love him is obvious from moment one; that he is a crazed deviant is even more painfully evident, as Alexander refuses to make love to his new wife, and would rather pleasure himself while beholding her naked form from 10 feet away — and only then as she faces the wall.

It’s the first hint of a deeper, far more sinister stirring in Alexander’s soul that is hinted at rather than explored, to the film’s great credit.

Even more nefarious is Alexander’s father, Boris (Christopher Fairbank), a monster of self-righteousness who doesn’t miss an opportunity to lecture Katherine about her “wifely duties” even when her co-conspirator in such marital congress is unwilling.

Upon all of this the filmmakers paste a racial element, as a black field worker on the estate, Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis) and Katherine soon develop wistful eyes for one another. Furthermore, as Katherine’s schemes become ever clearer, she enlists unwittingly the help of her servant, Anna (Naomi Ackie), also black, in a plan whose nadir can only be guessed at.

Adultery in one form of another is certain. Characters will die. But the ultimate payoff of what happens — and, more importantly, how it happens — is what elevates “Lady Macbeth” above soap opera gloop and into greatness. The film shrugs off any hint of irony, and there is an act committed by two of the characters near the film’s climax that is so horrifying in its perverse logic that it makes the despicable choices that came before seem downright amateur in comparison.

Mr. Oldroyd’s camera is unmoving and sinister. He — and, by extension, the viewer — is content to watch this maelstrom of moral turpitude unfold. Much like Hitchcock, Mr. Oldroyd makes us his accomplices in sin by daring us to look away.

“Lady Macbeth,” written by the actress Alice Birch, is not a complicated film, but it is morally complex in a way that few other modern films dare to be. In extinguishing redemption or even the hint of goodness in its ambitions, it transcends tragedy and veers into the realm of the wicked.

But it is as skillful a film as has been made this year.

Opens Thursday at the District’s Landmark E Street Cinema.

Rated R. Contains nudity and sexual situations, as well as characters of moral blankness.



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