British filmmaker William Oldroyd might have a background in theatre, but his debut feature, Lady Macbeth (opening in Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal this weekend) has less in common with Shakespeare than its title might suggest. More attuned to contemporary cinema and classic literature, Oldroyd’s film breathes new life into stodgy tropes of Victorian Era period pieces and creates a monster of a sexually loaded power struggle.
Emerging, but already outstanding talent Florence Pugh headlines Oldroyd and screenwriter Alice Birch’s adaptation of 19th century Russian novelist Nikolai Leskov’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. Transplanting the story to rural Victorian England, Oldroyd tells the tale of Lady Catherine (Pugh), a woman who has entered into a marriage of status and convenience with an older, impotent, loutish, hard drinking, and aloof estate owner (Paul Hilton) in rural Victorian England. Her husband gets called away to tend to a factory explosion for a lengthy period of time, and Catherine is forbidden to even leave the house for some fresh air by her more loathsome and misogynistic father-in-law (Christopher Fairbank). During a rare time of being left alone, Catherine catches the eye of a manly, but somewhat sleazy and sex crazed stable worker (Cosmo Jarvis, among one of this film’s many revelatory performances). They begin an illicit affair that’s quickly discovered by the father-in-law. Catherine’s unhappiness leads her to extreme measures and the fallout from her actions quickly escalates into a devious plan for personal autonomy.
Although he has previously directed the likes of Shakespeare, Sartre, and Ibsen on stage – in addition to several award winning short films – Lady Macbeth feels even more stripped down and intimate than his theatrical work. Creating an insightful, subtexual period piece from a shoestring budget of well less than a million dollars and on a tight shooting schedule would be a challenge for the most seasoned of filmmakers, but Lady Macbeth makes Oldroyd’s work seem almost effortless. It’s one of the best films of the year thus far, and certainly one of the most gleefully nasty and challenging efforts by a first time feature director working at this level in quite some time.
We caught up to William Oldroyd yesterday as he came back to Toronto for the film’s proper cinematic opening (following the film’s world premiere at TIFF last fall) and talked about his influences and approaches to the material.
As someone from the UK, you know very well how many films and various productions are set in Victorian England because it lends itself well to a lot of opulent production design and high drama, but Lady Macbeth seems to actively resist and push back against a lot of what people might associate with these kinds of period pieces. When you got this material, was there anything you pulled from – literature, cinema, theatre, or history – that you wanted to incorporate that other period pieces set in this time didn’t do? What did you look to when trying to set the tone of this film?
William Oldroyd: What I liked about the story was that the setup is quite conventional. We’ve seen that before in these kinds of films: a woman trapped in a loveless marriage who then has an affair. That’s basically the essence of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which is a fairly famous British story, and therefore a pretty famous set-up. But what Catherine does next seemed radical and different. So many women from those stories that everyone knows and has read often suffer as a result of their actions, whereas Catherine has a good go at escaping.
The tone of this narrative means that you can lead the audience to expect a certain idea of what might happen at first, and then you change it. Then it becomes quite violent and quite bloody. Those two elements were fascinating. It starts as a sort of look at the stifling oppression that she suffered in that very male household; a very airless household which we sort of created by design, and then we contrasted that with the freedom of the moors and the wuthering winds to give her character a connection to nature, the wild, and the outside. That’s where she wanted to be, and the beginning of the film shows how the men of this house want her to be: corseted and proper, sitting on the couch, doing her duty. On the inside, however, she wants to be free, and she wants to have sex, and she wants to enjoy the basic freedoms most young women would be expected to have.
I think the period dramas that appeal to me most and that I thought about while making this were, for example, Patrice Chéreau’s La Reine Margot, which was so bloody, visceral, and exciting. I love the energy that can be found in that film. I thought it was important to have that. Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights had that same kind of energy, too. It was very dirty and real. It felt like you were watching real people. These are films that clash with the formality that people have come to expect from British period drama settings.
Another thing about the setting that runs counter to Victorian myth is that while it takes place on this large expanse, it’s an almost completely unadorned estate. The grounds and interiors are large and expansive, but comparatively speaking they aren’t much to look at. It’s stately on the outside, but it’s a rather plain and bland place to spend time there. How important was it to find a place like this where you could scale everything back to its essence?
William Oldroyd: We were quite up front in the beginning that we weren’t interested in the bucolic or pastoral. We’ve all seen that before. We’ve seen the harvest, the turning into spring, the blossoming, and we thought all of those things had nothing to do with our movie. It was there in the source material and in Alice’s screenplay. Alice provided a screenplay that was already pared back, usefully so. She wanted there to be an austerity of emotion to go along with the austerity of language and location. That really helped us to emphasise those elements when we looked at the topography, landscape, and design of this place. Even when Catherine goes outside, what she really wants to do is quite dangerous to attain. There’s never a safe place for her, and that was always important for us to convey.
The book was set in Russia, so if she were to escape, where would she escape to? There would be hundreds of miles of wilderness that she would have to traverse in order to find a rescue, and we thought that should be the same for us. People might ask, “Well, why doesn’t she just go to the village and get help?” Okay, but where is that village? We never see who those people are. She’s almost like a character in a fairy tale that’s trapped in the tower.
I think that’s what informed the design. The house that we shot in was empty, and we just brought in very simple items that we needed to make the place functional. We thought that these men wouldn’t spend the time or money on decoration. They were far too interested in industry, and interestingly, neither is Catherine. She never sort of conformed to the duty of a wife. There’s a line in the film that says “You haven’t been running the household in my absence,” and it’s precisely because she doesn’t want to. It was important for us for there not to be any music, books, children, or anything like that. We wanted no sort of external stimuli in order for her to be engaged with this place. She would literally be forced into sitting around and waiting out the day. That’s useful as a prompt to make her do something proactive.
While this is a story that’s set in Victorian England, I got the sense that with only a few tweaks in the dialogue and setting, this is something that could take place anywhere in the world at any time. Was the contemporary nature of the story something that was on your mind while you were making the film?
William Oldroyd: I really love Elena, Andrey Zvyagintsev’s film, and I feel like that’s a Dostoyevsky parable or shot story that was set in modern day on the outskirts of Russia. We talked about films like that when we were filming this and the tone that was set there as something to keep an eye on. The problem with making something contemporary like this in England today is that you can always jump on the phone or train, and it’s not a big country in the way that Russia is massive. In 1865 when the book was written and the film is set, women were still the property of their husbands, and that didn’t change until 1870 with The Married Women’s Property Act. That wrinkle turns the screw a bit, if you like. Her situation was really desperate, and there was something for us that was unique to this time period. So I don’t think it could take place anywhere at any time anymore, but thematically a lot of it is still relevant.
I think the most contemporary thing with our film is that we couldn’t think of many people who would try to make a period drama for only half a million before. (laughs) There was something in the audacity of that. We could have failed and it could have been a disaster. We might not have been able to make a period drama for that money, but we wanted to try, and we thought that the budget was going to be a virtue for us and give maybe that timeless feeling that you alluded to. Because we were dealing with austerity on numerous levels, we would be forced to justify every decision to focus us creatively. You have to justify every decision or else you’re wasting time, money, and story that you can’t afford to waste. Do you want this or do you want this other thing? You can’t have them both, and if you want to make a strong case for keeping both of them, you had better find something else to cut.
Another element of Lady Macbeth that most Victorian era period pieces never gets into is the uneasy relationship between Catherine, and Anna, her housekeeper, played by Naomi Ackie. At first, the audience can see Catherine’s journey as a way to struggle out from oppressive circumstances, but she’s also oppressing a character that essentially acts as an audience surrogate. What was it like depicting that relationship?
William Oldroyd: That was so interesting that you mention that because we were doing everything we could with the script and with the film to try and keep it away from Anna’s point of view. We felt to have her as a pair of eyes watching everything Catherine and Sebastian do made it sort of drift into a film about Anna. We knew the film had to be from Catherine’s point of view because – like her or not – she’s the protagonist. We knew it would be interesting to see things through Anna’s eyes, but then we would remind ourselves that this wasn’t Anna’s film. Eventually, we did come to a balance between the two because we thought and realized that Anna and Catherine probably came from very similar backgrounds. We know very little about Catherine in the film, but I feel like they’re both servants on some level. Anna is the servant of the household and Catherine, but Catherine is a servant to Alexander in the bedroom, and just because she’s married to this man, she’s expected to perform a duty.
What began to emerge from this is a sort of antagonism between the two. In another version of this story, they might have become confidants or friends, but there’s a jealous that develops. Catherine envies Anna’s ability to go outside and have relationships and friendships with the other members of the household. The men working at the household also flirt with Anna in ways that they don’t flirt with Catherine. She wants that attention and connection, so in every moment where there could be hope, they’re instead challenging each other, and I thought that was really interesting about what Alice created there. She wanted these women to bristle against each other.
By the end of the film, the viewer is placed into a very gray moral position that will probably divide people on how they feel about Catherine. Some might be rooting for her, while others have might see her as loathsome and irredeemable. Now that you have played this film around the world for various audiences, what have you noticed the split has been like between viewers who sympathize with Catherine and those who hate her?
William Oldroyd: It is so divided. (laughs) In fact, we were in Poland for the Cameraimage Film Festival, and there were two young women in the audience, and during the Q&A they said they went to the cinema a lot together and that on virtually all occasions they would agree with each other. On this instance, however, they completely disagreed, so they straight away asked me if I could solve it for them and tell them who was right. (laughs) My answer was that if they felt like this, then they were both right. It’s up to you. If you feel strongly that Catherine should be excused for what she does or if you unnderstand her logic, that’s fine. If you think her actions are unforgivable, again, that’s up to you. It’ a film that’s asking you to make some judgments instead of making them for you.
Lady Macbeth opens at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto, International Village in Vancouver, and at Forum Cinemas, Cinema du Parc, and Cavendish Mall in Montreal on Friday, July 28, 2017. It expands to further cities and theatres on Friday, August 11.