Lady Macbeth—a constrained, choked-up chamber piece from British director William Oldroyd—is neither a revision or retelling of Shakespeare’s canonical work. Not a parallel text, but an unequivocal heir. In this adaptation of Nikolai Leskov’s obscure Russian novella “Lady Macbeth of Mtensk,” our villain-heroine Katherine (Florence Pugh) does not find herself in the same setting or dramatic situation as Shakespeare’s symbol of malevolent, malignant female power. Katherine, a child-bride married off by Boris (Christopher Fairbank) to his older, impotent, abusive, and often absent son (Paul Hilton), begins an affair with local laborer Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis). Soon caught out and cornered, it is Katherine who takes direct control of their circumstance, and liberates herself. In Lady Macbeth, murder is not gendered masculine.
We met with director William Oldroyd to discuss his debut feature.
NOTEBOOK: This is your first feature film, so I would like to ask you about how you composed your images. Shots seem symmetrical and static during the day, and shakier during the night. Then as day turns to night, some shots are also repeated. How did you approach cinematography and editing?
WILLIAM OLDROYD: The logic behind the camerawork was really to do with Katherine’s imprisonment, so we tried a very formal frame, we locked it off as if she was in prison. We tried to squash her in the frame, to keep her contained. And then actually the camera started to move when she started to find this passion, this desire—when she tried to wake up, if you like. The first time we went handheld was when she was outside, on the moors, when she hears a sound which draws her to the barn, where she meets Sebastian for the first time. So then anything to do with those two, we used the handheld to get closer to her, to find her P.O.V. When the men returned—her husband and father-in-law—we go back to try and squash her again, to keep her contained. And then you had this great tension, I think, between knowing that the camera wants to try and move, but then has to try and keep still.
NOTEBOOK: The film is pared back to a handful of players, a lone location—an interior and exterior—and, as characters move around the space, the film seems to enjoy creating irony between background and foreground. Cinema can incorporate a lot of conventions of other modes and media, why carry across these conventions of theatre?
OLDROYD: I’ve worked in theatre for 10 years—I had to teach myself film grammar, that cinematic language… I watched films and read some fantastic books about ultimately where you put the camera and why. That sort of static lock-shot feels very much like the proscenium arch of the theatre stage, and that feel of moving people around, making compositions within one frame is something that I’m quite used to doing. And then, actually, I had to work out where to put the camera next in order to get the scene covered or find the right emotion. I was very mindful not to make this feel like this was just a filmed play. That was also to do with the writing of it—working with Alice Birch, the screenwriter. It was her first screenplay, we had both come from a theatre background, and so we knew what it was like to write a play, but we were really trying to make cinema; so we thought, in theatre where you try to say something, [here] we could try and show it.And the engine which drives the scene is very different in cinema than it is on stage—for example, a scene doesn’t have to complete, an idea can carry on into the next shot, and how that transference works. In the cuts, our editor Nick Emerson—a fantastic editor—was very interested in coming into a scene quite late, just a couple of beats after you’d expect to come in, and then he would try and leave the scene early, so that the energy of the scene would carry into the next moment, and then the idea would try and carry across. That was a fantastic thing to learn as we were making it.
NOTEBOOK: This isn’t an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, itself a sort-of rewriting of Holinshed. The title of the Leskov text seems to invite some comparison—and as significance often created through contrast, how much are we to compare this to Macbeth?
OLDROYD: Nikolai Leskov called Katherine, or Katerina in the original novella, ‘Lady Macbeth of Mtesnk,’ where she lives. He called her that because he couldn’t really understand how a woman could do such despicable and murderous things without being like the character from Shakespeare’s play. But our film and the book are nothing to do with the story of Macbeth at all. To find parallels… I think you need to look for them. I think you can come to our film without knowing anything about the Shakespeare play whatsoever because it’s not an adaptation of that. It’s just the qualities she has, according to Leskov, are similar qualities to Lady Macbeth, who asks to be “unsex”-ed, and to be filled with the “direst cruelty.” These are the things she invokes in the play, and these are the things Leskov thinks Katerina has in order to do the things she does in the story he writes.
NOTEBOOK: The film is also quite liberally adapted from the Leskov text, set in Victorian England and not 19th century Russia. There is also no exterior representation of supernatural forces, any invocation to the spirits, nor any overt eerie Gothic manifestation of madness or guilt. Probably more fitting for its time period, it especially deals with psychology and gender.
OLDROYD: I think gender is the key thing—it’s the focus for us. Gender and identifying the injustices of that. The fact that women were not able to own property, that they were not able to own themselves in 1865, when this is set, that they don’t have any rights to property until 1870, 5 years afterwards.
In terms of the spirits and the invocations and so on... if they were there in the novel, we’ve lost them in the film. Because it is a Christian conscience that drives Sebastian—or Sergei, in the book—to confess, he feels he’s going to be damned, and it’s a priest who helps him to unburden himself. For us, we felt that maybe there was just another way of doing it, more about just basic humanity: he feels guilty for the death of a child, and it’s that that drives him to confess. And especially because he feels like he’s trapped. Everybody in this film feels that they are trapped, somehow, and he feels like he’s trapped in the relationship with Katherine. She’s trapped by her position as a woman in this society, and being able to come out and say “We did it, we killed these people!” he hopes is a relief, or a release. There were some fantastical elements in the book which we weren’t very interested in…
NOTEBOOK: The cat!
OLDROYD: The cat speaks with the voice of Boris, which we tried. So we shot the cat, we also recorded Boris saying some lines to put it into the cat’s mouth, and it just didn’t work. I think that belongs in Russian literature, not in British cinema.
NOTEBOOK: How does evil exist here? Too late to be theological, too early to be secularised?
OLDROYD: I read some interesting stuff about the fact that there were more churches built in the reign of Queen Victoria than all the churches that were built altogether up to that point. It was an explosion. But it was also a great time of profanity… The ‘sacred and the profane’ came into great focus in this period. The question of evil, for me, is a very strange one. I think she is compelled to do the things that she does because she is in a very, very dire situation. Someone called it a ‘coup’—it is basically like a coup. People are going to get hurt when you oppress them in this way.
I studied theology at university, it’s what I did before I went into directing, obviously it appeals to me, this idea… but for this film, we thought we would leave that behind. That belongs maybe in Russia, even though it was very present in Victorian England too. The only thing that happens is the priest coming, and the priest is like another prison warden. I think, also, that religion is a terrible, terrible excuse for the way in which these men treat women, they talk about virtue but they’re actually talking about control, and they’re using religion as an excuse to do that.
NOTEBOOK: On a final note—as it would necessarily have to happen in a tragedy, Katherine here is not punished for her crimes, or her transgressions—why the move beyond the model of tragedy?
OLDROYD: It’s interesting you say that, because we were really conscious of that. I think at the end of the film, there is a punishment there. The irony is that the thing she desires more than anything—freedom, independence—she gets at the end. But she’s the most trapped. When she sits at the sofa at the end, there’s no one to tell her what to do, she can do what she wants—but she no longer has Sebastian, she no longer has Anna, she no longer has her husband or father-in-law, everybody’s gone. That isolation is stifling—so in a way there is a sort of… If you’re looking for justice for the things that she does, if you’re looking for punishment, it exists, I think, in the fact that her situation is not a happy situation at the end, even though ironically she is free of all of the things that constrained her in the beginning.