Chuck Koplinski: 'Lady Macbeth' a shocking, compelling standout

Chuck Koplinski: 'Lady Macbeth' a shocking, compelling standout

It becomes apparent early on in William Oldroyd's impressive debut feature "Lady Macbeth," that Katherine, the heroine of the piece, will rebel against her station.

Sold into marriage as part of a business proposition and wed to the impotent and much older Alexander (Paul Hilton), the young woman is forced to live her days following a strict regime in which she has to dress a certain way, sit a certain way, appear at meal times to the minute and do all her husband and father-in-law (Christopher Fairbank) tell her to do.

A glimpse of the way in which Katherine's maid Anna (Naomi Ackie) violently brushes her hair is indicative of her situation. She's forced to endure one indignity after another, a life with seemingly no way out. It's an oppressive existence Katherine bridles against, looking for a way to express herself ... to live ... to escape.

While the film begins as a modern take on "Madame Bovary," the direction this adaptation of the 1865 novel by Nikolai Leskov couldn't be more modern or timely. Oldroyd's brisk pacing and an indelible performance by actress Florence Pugh drive this screed against traditional gender roles and in the end proves itself to be one of the best films of 2017.

Katherine sees the opportunity to loosen the reins a bit when her husband is sent away and she catches the eye of Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), a common workman who toils on the estate where she lives. That she makes his acquaintance while interrupting a pseudo-rape of Anna by him and the other workers doesn't serve as a warning to the woman; rather she has found the man she needs to shake up the status quo of the home.

Seeing in Sebastian the worst choice she could possibly make, she begins a passionate affair with him, flaunting it in front of the entire staff of the estate, daring them to question the impropriety of her actions, as she shatters one social norm after another.

It comes as no surprise that her rebellion gets away from her, and dire consequences result from all she has wrought, but what is shocking is the lengths the title character goes to in order to ensure her happiness and independence.

The film segues into James M. Cain ("Double Indemnity," "The Postman Always Rings Twice") territory as Katherine devises a plan that will allow her and Sebastian to run away together. Their fates are intertwined, and whether her shocking scheme succeeds or not, the severity of their behavior locks them together forever.

The entire cast does a remarkable job, but of particular note are Jarvis and Ackie, the arc of each of their characters requiring them to display a wide range of emotions. Each shine throughout, but there's no question this is Pugh's film, and she makes the most of it.

Coquettish, fierce, sexy, desperate and then quite mad, the actress fully inhabits the many faces her character is required to wear. At her core, Katherine is a survivor, an emotional chameleon able to adapt to any situation she's in, willing to do whatever she must to endure. It's the sort of role any performer would crave, and Pugh rises to the challenge, knocking us out from the first moment to the last.

Going from being moved by her plight to horrfied by her actions, "Lady Macbeth" puts the viewer through the wringer as we witness Katherine's transformation. Repressed then empowered, ultimately the young woman's anger and desperation drive her to do things that cannot be justified.

Though we may be horrified by all she has done, our final glimpse of her — unmoved, ready to sport yet another false face in order to survive — is the most chilling moment of all.

'Lady Macbeth' (★★★★ out of four)

Cast: Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis, Paul Hilton, Naomi Ackie, Christopher Fairbank, Golda Rosheuvel, Anton Palmer, Rebecca Manley and Bill Fellows.

Directed by William Oldroyd; produced by Fodhia Cronin O'Reilly; screenplay by Alice Birch, based on the novel by Nikolai Leskov.

A Roadside Attractions release. 89 minutes. Rated R (disturbing violence, strong sexuality/nudity and language) At the Art Theater.

Also new in theaters

Modest approach topples "Dark Tower" (★★ out of four). Through sheer force of will, Idris "the Man Who Should Be Bond" Elba attempts to make Nikolaj Arcel's adaptation of Stephen King's "The Dark Tower" something of note.

Needless to say, his efforts go to waste in this odd misfire of a movie that takes a surprisingly modest approach to the author's epic vision. At eight books and counting, King's saga is a "Lord of the Rings" type gambit that deals with the end of the world.

Obviously, only so much can be covered in one film (a TV series is to be launched to continue the story), but there's a small-scale feel to the production that doesn't provide the epic scope that a project such as this demands, which will likely leave viewers less than satisfied.

We're informed early on that there is a tower at the center of the universe that holds everything together. It is a prophesized that a child will have the power to bring it down, something that the Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey) is intent on doing. His modus operandi is kidnapping children from various worlds and hooking them up to a device that channels their psychic power toward the tower to destroy it.

He has been chipping away at it but hasn't found the child he seeks until young teen Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) discovers a portal on Earth that takes him to Mid-World, where these shenanigans are taking place. Luckily, the kid meets Roland (Elba), a haunted gunslinger who realizes his power and does his best to protect him.

Of course, this is not the sort of film that bears up to any scrutiny where its plot is concerned. For instance, you can't ask why the Man in Black wants to destroy the tower; it's just something bad guys do! And as to why Jake has the powers he has, well, there's no rhyme or reason to that, other than he shares the same initials with the world's most famous savior. Nope, this is a tale told in broad strokes that fails to achieve the sort of solemnity required so that we don't nitpick it to death.

While McConaughey seems undecided throughout whether to play his Satan-role straight or in a sardonic comic manner, Taylor is very good here, looking appropriately haunted and holding his own with the two screen veterans.

As for Elba, this material simply isn't worth his efforts. His convincing turn as the troubled eternal warrior is the most engaging thing about the film. More background on the character would have been welcome, but the actor's nuanced turn ably fills in the gaps of the faulty script.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the movie is that it seems to be in a hurry and doesn't adequately mine potentially interesting situations. When Roland and Jake travel back to Earth, not nearly enough is made of the gunslinger's sense of disorientation or his trying to come to terms with his alien surroundings.

His mildly comic approach to his first can of Coca-Cola points to other humorous moments that could have been, while potentially poignant scenes in which he could perhaps catch glimpses of his past reflected in events of our own world go unexplored.

"The Dark Tower" has had a long struggle coming to the screen, with many screenwriters and directors coming and going, daunted by the scope of King's story. With Arcel's production, it seems as though he and the rest of his crew realized they had bitten off far more than they could chew and then gave up, the result being a half-hearted attempt in bringing this potentially intriguing world to life.

For DVR alerts, film recommendations and movie news, follow Koplinski on ­Twitter at (@ckoplinski). He can be reached via email at

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