A theme may be developing in this year’s Borderline Festival: that of pregnant woman on killing sprees. After Alice Lowe’s murderous primigravida in Prevenge we have William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth taking out the men in her life, albeit by less gruesome means. However uneasily at times, Lowe’s fable is played for laughs; Oldroyd’s, an adaptation of Nikolai Leskov’s novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, makes no attempt to lighten the mood. A more considered, if not self-conscious, piece of film-making, it cuts off every avenue of escape – into humour, sub-plots or consolation – and leaves the viewer, like the female protagonist, with nowhere to hide.
Several transpositions are involved: from page to screen, from Tsarist Russia to Victorian England, and from Shakespeare’s villain to a teenage bride. Katherine, a young woman whose background is not explained, has been married off to an older man whom she may never have seen before. Alexander is the son of a mine-owner, Boris – the latter’s name a nod towards Leskov’s original, but the single false note in an otherwise convincing recreation of time and place. Boris makes no bones about it: she has been ‘sold’ to his family along with a field, her status as property underlined; and Alexander, unmanned by his father’s lowering presence, is incapable of love or even, it seems, desire. As her frustration and unhappiness grows, Katherine turns to a groom in her father-in-law’s service. Their liaison is discovered but, rather than return to domestic slavery, Katherine embarks on a murderous bid for what we might now think of as liberation. Except that it isn’t, of course, this being tragedy.
Birch has described the film as an ‘anti-bonnet’ view of the period and to an audience raised on Jane Austen serials the revisionism is unsparing. Costume, so often a scene-stealer in period drama, is brutally deconstructed. To watch Katherine being squeezed and laced into her clothes is to witness a violent assault as well as a form of imprisonment, the gradual reduction in what she wears a signifier of resistance and escape. And the absence of music, the steroid of screen nostalgia, brings us closer to the action, sometimes uncomfortably so. Wind is heard scouring the moor, its bleakness immediate and untempered. We hear the small, queasy sounds of Alexander’s self-pleasuring. Above all the house, like an extra character, speaks to us in creaks, chimes and crushing silences, any comfort it provides merely physical. As for the human protagonists, Florence Pugh as Katherine, faced with the boredom and frustration of such a life, makes a mesmerising transition from girlish petulance to full-blown monstrosity. No duty or demure submission here. And Naomi Ackie endows Anna, the maid, with a bewildered passivity, her colour adding depth to the film’s indictment of servitude.
It is the idea of Lady Macbeth to which one keeps returning, however, and the uses to which such an archetype can be put. Shakespeare’s original had lost her children and our present-day understanding of grief reads much into that circumstance. But it was omitted from the first folio and most subsequent editions so that a less nuanced conception of the part, focusing on thwarted ambition, usually prevails. Leskov’s updating of the plot has a more domestic setting, with sexual need and rebellion against patriarchy providing motivation, and Lowe’s script is faithful to this reading of the story in most respects. Disappointingly, Katherine’s male tormentors, Boris in particular, are little more than cartoons of oppressive men – revenge, perhaps, for centuries of cardboard cut-out women but one-dimensional all the same and sparing us the emotional exercise of divided sympathies.
Oldfield’s film passes the test of any adaptation, adding its own layer of meaning through which previous versions of the story can be viewed. Take the fate of his Lady Macbeth, which substitutes a form of triumph for the usual comeuppance. This might be seen as a feminist reworking except that it comes at a terrible price. A child and an innocent woman die and Katherine becomes everything she hates, our final sight of her loveless and stone-hearted, the prison of her clothes re-entered without irony. It is not who rules this world that has to change, the film appears to be saying, but the world itself.