Directed by: William Oldroyd
Starring: Florence Pugh, Christopher Fairbank, Cosmo Jarvis
No, not that one. Although, if one were to make a comparison, the titular heroine of William Oldroyd’s remarkable directorial debut is such an insidiously ruthless presence she makes Shakespeare‘s infamous Scottish Queen look like Feste from ‘Twelfth Night’.
We’re introduced to Katherine (Florence Pugh) on her wedding day. It’s meant to be the happiest of her life, and yet her eyes show a fierce resentment: her voice drowned out as she sings a hymn, by the thick, booming brogues of her new husband, Alexander (Paul Hilton, beady-eyed and baleful) and his father, Boris (Christopher Fairbank, spewing dialogue like venom).
For Katherine, this isn’t a marriage; it’s misery – a sentence of eternal suffering from which there is no escape. Her spouse is a sadist, either unwilling or unable to consummate their supposed love, and of the firm belief that his young bride should be permanently confined to the house and never allowed to walk the grounds.
Making his first feature film, having honed his skills in the theatre, Oldroyd directs with an assured expertise. His close, confined focus, accentuated by DP Ari Wegner’s use of locked off shots, emphasising Katherine’s isolation; the stuffy silence of the airless interiors – compared to the freeing winds of the Northumberland Dales – weakening her fortitude.Soon, however, we notice the frame begin to open out. After Alexander and Boris are called away for an extended absence, Katherine takes it upon herself to explore further afield, and, after a number of encounters, initiates an affair with an earthy stable-hand (Cosmo Jarvis, ruggedly charming) that awakens an excitement and passion so sorely missing from her life. Despite the obvious unease of her handmaid (a quietly piteous Naomi Ackie), Katherine finally feels liberated from the repressive males who have dictated her existence. Then one morning, she awakens to find her husband has returned…
Adapting her script from Nikolai Leskov’s novella ‘Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk’, playwright Alice Birch has crafted a commandingly radical period piece that shares a spiritual affinity with Lawrence’s ‘Lady Chatterley’. Challenging expectations with a forceful conviction, Katherine confronts her oppressors with violence, Birch’s caustic writing tackling her audience’s attitude towards femininity and morality with a refreshing ferocity.
Effortlessly holding our gaze to the final moment is Florence Pugh – her appearance steely, and her aura uncompromising. It would be impossible to condone all that Katherine does, but crucially, never are we compelled to simply condemn her for her actions: Birch and Oldroyd are too shrewd, and too smart for that. The last time we see Katherine, she’s dressed in a dark, forbidding gown; from woman in white to lady in black, maybe sometimes it’s good to be bad.