Story by Paul Hellard
The tide is turning on struggling underdogs. This winter tale of Lady Macbeth is a spin on an 1865 Russian novella titled Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk by Nikolai Keskov. In a hot new production made under the iFeatures scheme in Britain, the central character played brilliantly by Florence Pugh, finds herself in an untenable situation. But while contracted spouses of such tender age traditionally suffered in silence, our young protagonist Katherine fights for her independence, deciding her own fate in an entirely unexpected way.
Director William Oldroyd and writer Alice Birch shared a common interest in moving toward a career in film after both making their names in theatre in the U.K. Producer Fodhla Cronin O’Reilly helped Oldroyd come to terms with the many differences in production techniques.
Florence Pugh is a serious performer with an earthy strength, bringing spunk and barely controlled flame to the role. She exudes an independence which works for her as the uncomfortable lady of the manor.
The characters are so very real, so human and fallible. They are perhaps unlikeable, with exception to the staff who do suffer quietly. Lady Macbeth is also a gorgeous piece of dark period photography and story-telling. Celebrating the plain, but also displaying the trap of tradition.
The visuals in Lady Macbeth are stunning. There is real natural light washing through nearly every scene, it is beautiful. Stone and deep Middle English colours of winter mix with the ever present textures of period dress and the tired, failing British gentry of 1865. Photographically reminiscent of Ian Baker’s work on Fred Schepisi’s The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith, or Greig Fraser’s treatment of Jane Campion’s Bright Star, the visuals are dark, bone-achingly cold and one can almost smell the funk of human disintegration as the story develops.
The location secured for this production was the Lambton Castle in Northumberland. Apart from sequences out on the moors, most everything was shot within a select few rooms of this old homestead for most of the 24 day shoot. Celebrated Melbourne cinematographer Ari Wegner was inspired by the environment that was hers to paint. She spoke about the creative challenges. “We were also blessed by having the one location in the Durham property apart from a sequence on the moors, only a couple of hours down the road,” Wegner says.
There are several wide master shots for the film’s signature sequences. These rooms had their own part in the story. Although says Wegner, “it was an almighty challenge to convey a story where the leading lady finds she is trapped in the house with nothing to do, so the walls of the rooms become my palette. We were so lucky the walls had so much character.”
“There were lots of high ceilings at Lambton Castle, a lot of real estate to light, a steep learning curve and technical challenges everywhere,” explains Wegner. Apart from the bedroom which was on the second floor, each room had to have extensive soft lighting to bring out the features of those walls, the dark teak of the furniture, while allowing each character’s face to effectively convey this rich, brooding story.
“There was an extremely modest sized crew and everyone really stepped up,” says Wegner. “No one ever had nothing to do.”
Lady Macbeth is released nationally on June 29, after a stellar run at several film festivals.