Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Russian Gothic in the North of England

Jenny gives William Olroyd's Lady Macbeth five stars

No, it’s nothing to do with Shakespeare, just the title of a Russian story written by Nikolai Leskov in 1865 where the author wanted to find a suitable name for a woman who defies convention and carries through some increasingly terrible deeds.

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Katherine (Florence Pugh) is a teenage bride who has been part of a Buy One Get One Free deal between her impoverished family and the bullying mine owner who purchases her for his weak and dislikeable son. She is a virtual prisoner, forbidden to leave the house. So far, so familiar: we’ve seen the poor downtrodden girl before, we know what to expect from the wedding night, the windy walks on the moors with hair flying, and then the inevitable transgressive sex with the handsome dark-skinned groom (Cosmo Jarvis). Oh yes, we’ve seen Wuthering Heights. We know what happens to women like Madame Bovary and Becky Sharp. It’s almost enough to make you want to shout, ‘Don’t do it Katherine! Haven’t you read your Lady Chatterley?’

So the film is apparently a bodice ripper and bodices do get ripped. It’s set in the English North East so there are appropriately gritty accents. There’s period décor and costume. Many of the scenes are visually startling with one vivid colour, for instance Katherine’s bright turquoise dress, splashed into an otherwise monochrome frame.

But what’s this? The heroine wears a crinoline cage and is laced hard into corsets but she also wears Boots Number 7 eyeliner. There is an orange pet cat as restless as she, and it’s a Cornish Rex, a breed not invented until 1950. She gets drunk in a thoroughly 21st century teenager-y way, combining smirking insolence with a little light falling over. She eats like every modern teenager I know – that is to say by holding her cutlery in an extremely peculiar way. The film was shot on location at Lambton Castle in Wearside and I could swear that the paint is straight out of the Farrow and Ball catalogue, in fact it looks very like Mouse’s Back, the same exquisitely tasteful colour that our ex-prime minister has chosen for the quaint little old-but-new ‘shepherd’s hut’ where he will be pretending to write his memoirs.

Image result for Vilhelm HammershøiWilliam Oldroyd has spoken of getting inspiration from the Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershøi, who has often painted women facing away from the viewer, sometimes looking out of a window in an isolated landscape. The effect in the film (the production designer is Jacqueline Abrahams) is of empty stone stairways and tall rooms which have had all the air sucked out of them.

There are black and mixed race servants though no one makes the slightest comment on this; there is class prejudice and sexism; there is cruelty; there is sex; there is crime. But the director has not wasted what he learnt in his earlier career in opera where themes of Grand Guignol revenge can mix readily enough with farce. The moral corruption of the characters emerges gradually as you begin to realize that the plot displays all the conventions only to promptly upend them. This is no simpering heroine, but you will have to see the film to discover how and why. The director has borrowed from Haneke, Hardy, Andrea Arnold and most notably from Scandi Noir but has created a style that seems unique, fresh and possibly a little reckless. 

The screenplay, written by Alice Birch, has minimal dialogue and indeed one of the characters becomes mute during the course of the action. The cast are magnificent. There is almost no music. The sound designer, Ben Baird, deserves every possible award for the way he evokes the unsettling voice of the house: the austere squeak of shutters being opened, the clatter of feet on wooden floors, the scrape of knives on plates and the echo of words spoken in rooms stripped of comfort. Most amazingly of all, the film was shot in 24 days and made for under £500,000. This is the film equivalent of a fiver. Well done you guys, I look forward eagerly to your next project.