Monday, July 10, 2017

Lady Macbeth (of the Mtsensk District) in England

Nikolai Laskov’s novella, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District was originally Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s literary magazine Epoch, which was a really snappy name for a publication, don’t you think? Despite its progressive and even revolutionary elements, it remained in varying states of official disapproval throughout the Czarist and Communist years. In fact, Dmitri Shostakovich first ran afoul of Joseph Stalin with his operatic adaptation. Years later, legendary free-thinking Polish auteur Andrzej Wajda brought it to the big screen as Siberian Lady Macbeth. Those are intimidating footsteps to follow in, but theater director William Oldroyd pulls off a first-rate anglicized version with Lady Macbeth (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Boris, a wealthy old mine owner, essentially buys Katherine as a wife for his charisma-challenged son Alexander. On their wedding night, Katherine learns her new husband is either impotent or extremely dysfunctional when it comes to marital business. Yet, that will not prevent Boris from berating her in the following months for her failure to produce an heir.

Of course, she is not the one at fault, as her torrid affair with Sebastian, the rough-mannered stable hand will attest. Rather conveniently, both Boris and Alexander will depart on business, leaving Katherine free to openly conduct her affair in front of her scandalized servant Anna. However, word of her adulterous behavior eventually reaches Boris, who returns to restore discipline to his household. Instead, it will be Katherine who lives up to the title’s Shakespearean reference. It will not be the last murder either, nor will it be the end of complications for the mistress of the house, who will be quite surprised when her husband’s alleged love child is delivered to her for safe keeping.

The feminist implications of Katherine’s marriage, a cold affair that was definitely not of her choosing, wax and wane in the various dramatic interpretations. This time around, Oldroyd is not without sympathy, but really emphasizes the murderous skulduggery, which makes the film jolly fun, in a sinister kind of way.

Whether she be a true anti-heroine or a villainess whom we perversely cheer on, Florence Pugh makes quite an impression as the non-Scottish, non-Russian Lady Macbeth. Deceptively sleight of frame, she truly dominates the screen as she schemes and seduces. Among the men, only the seasoned veteran Christopher Fairbank manages not to wilt when in the proximity of her heat. Yet, Naomie Ackie captures viewer sympathy with her poignantly tragic portrayal of the poor, overwhelmed Anna.

Oldroyd’s approach to Leskov is as lean and mean as the austere period sets and costumes. There is nothing flowering about the film or its standout performances. Rather, it serves up straight shots of human nature at its most predatory and invites us to enjoy the resulting blackly humorous consequences. Highly recommended for literate viewers, Lady Macbeth opens this Friday (7/14) in New York, at the Angelika Film Center.