Upon his return from exile in Siberia, Fyodor Dostoyevsky threw himself into literary activities. With his brother Mikhail, he consecutively edited two influential magazines, first Vremya (“Time”) between 1861 and 1863, which was closed down by government censors, and then Epokha (“Epoch”), which collapsed after the death of Mikhail. Short-lived as the two magazines were, they produced some resonating literary works. In 1861 Dostoyevsky’s own The House of the Dead was serialized in Vremya. Four years later, Epokha published Nikolai Leskov’s novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, a story about a provincial merchant’s wife’s relentless pursuit of intense sexual relationship with a young man in her service, murdering anyone in her way. The novella has since become Leskov’s best known work partially due to Shostakovich’s famous operatic adaptation. Most of the cinematic treatments of the story are the filming or adaptations of the opera with the major exception of Polish director Andrzej Wajda ‘s Siberian Lady Macbeth (1962) based on the original source. William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth, premiered in last year’s Toronto Film Festival and now just ended its theatrical run, is the first film adaptation of the Leskov novella in the English language. It transplants the story from 19th-century provincial Russia to 19th-century provincial England. The result is a contrived production missing original work’s drama and naturalism, although the film’s atmospheric austerity gives it a unique character and the leading actress’s superb performance negates to an extent the otherwise curious casting choices.

Leskov’s novella can be treated as a prequel to Dostoevsky’s The House of the Dead, a work distinguished by its modernist structure. To borrow from trendy jargon, the so-called novel is a “hybrid” blending documentary and fiction. Forgoing overarching narrative, The House of the Dead is a collage of portraits of prisoners exiled to Siberia. It is a seamless mixture of memoir, impressions and imagination. The first-person narrative, however, inevitably limits readers’ knowledge of a vast ensemble of characters observed by the main protagonist, Dostoevsky’s alt-ego. There is an eerie sense of realism accordant to our daily experience: people come and go in front of our eyes, and they live and die without our participation. Leskov, working along with this mystery of the quotidian favored by Dostoevsky, nevertheless brings individual will, whim and desire back to the fore. The focus is on a middle-aged provincial merchant’s young wife Katerina Izmailova and her murderous escapade which eventually lands her and her lover positions in a prisoner’s convoy to Siberia.

The title Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk County paraphrases Ivan Turgenev’s short story Hamlet of the Shchigovsky District from Sketches of a Sportsman. Here the Shakespearean reference is made on the merit of spectral viewing: in Shakespeare Macbeth sees Banquo’s ghost at dinner table (Act 3, scene 4); in Leskov, it is Lady Macbeth who in the finale of the novella in a desperate moment of abandonment sees the ghosts of her father-in-law, her husband and her husband’s young nephew –her three murder victims, and then jumps into the river and drowns herself. One might conjecture that “Lady Macbeth” means a “female Macbeth”.

Free of Shakespearean schematization, Leskov’s Katerina Izmailova is characterized by her naiveté in her pursuit of love. She commits murders in a matter-of-fact and almost casual way as if she is just moving chairs and other obstacles on her way to bedroom. She is oblivious to the severity of her crimes which quietly disappear into daily routines – until suddenly the act of killing is exposed in the most dramatic fashion possible, to the shock of all.

This moment of exposure comes in Chapter 11 towards the end of the novella. Izmailova’s intention of murder, like in previous cases, came at a whim when she suddenly decided to smother her husband’s nephew:

“Katerina Lvovna quickly put her hand over the mouth of the terrified boy, and shouted [to her lover Sergei]:

‘Be quick about it: keep him flat so he can’t struggle!’.

For a space of some four minutes the room was silent as the grave.

‘He’s dead,’ Katerina Lvovna whispered …”

But when the two murderers raised their heads, they started to realize that “the walls of the quiet house, which had covered up so many crimes, were suddenly shaken deafening blows: the windows rattled, the floors shuddered, the chains of the hanging icon-lamps quivered, and fantastic shadows went leaping over the wall”. It was not their imagination – it was a crowd of youth, bored by a church meeting, sneaked into Izmailova property, peeped through the holes in the wooden wall in order to see the two lovers “getting it on” and accidentally witnessed the murder.

Murders are rarely committed in such an unintentionally public fashion. Indeed, the originality of Leskov lies not in this rather banal story of adultery but in the dramatic unfolding of this very moment, this phantasmagorical revealing of a crime to the terrors of both murderers in the house and its spectators outside the house. So it’s curious that William Oldroyd in his film adaptation omits the scene, opting for a conventional plot: the boy’s dead body is discovered next morning and then reported to a skeptical village doctor during whose questioning the murderess’s remorseful co-conspirator not only confesses to the murder but also shoulders the entire blame of the murder after false accusation made by his lover.

The plot discrepancy between the source and the film reflects a change in the characterization of the protagonist, our “Lady Macbeth”. The point Leskov wants to make is that how ordinary a serial killer could be and how daily routines nurture great terror – one doesn’t have to be extraordinary or in an extraordinary position to be evil. Although modern literary scholars are free to analyse the text from a Marxist, feminist or psychoanalytical point of view, the truth remains that this crime, as brazen and horrifying as it is, is seamlessly a part of social life in the 19th-century Russia. By contrast, Oldroyd’s heroine, who is displaced from Russia to 19th-century northern England and whose name is modified from “Katerina” to “Katherine”, has an extraordinarily strong character. Young actress Florence Pugh carries out the role with great dignity and nuances, but it is not meant to be.

A deeper reason is probably that Oldroyd wants to use the film as a commentary on modern race relations in England and beyond. In his adaptation the murderess has an affair with her servant Sebastian, played by the singer Cosmo Jarvis who (from where I sat) looks partially black. In the end of the film, Katherine absolves her role as a murderer by blaming the crime on him who is accused of having an affair with her black maid. There are also a legion of black characters living in this peculiar universe of 19th-century provincial and middle-class England. I don’t know whether this is historically accurate or it is part of multicultural trend in period drama. One thing for sure is that in his quest for novelty the filmmaker let go the terror of banality rich in the original source.

The golden age of Russian literature only occasionally inspired cinematic masterpieces in the West. It can be done with drastic alteration. Two prime examples come from the great French filmmaker Robert Bresson: his Pickpocket (1959), an adaptation of Crime and Punishment, turns Dostoevsky’s signature verbosity into transcendent silence in the Gallic sunshine and shadows; and his L’Argent (1983), an adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s The Forged Coupon, turns the Tolstoian social commentary into the religious anguish of high Catholicism.

In those two occasions, the adaptations are radical but done with great subtlety and the spirit of the original texts are intact. In the case of L’Argent, one might even say that the drama is enhanced. The same thing cannot be said of Lady Macbeth. Besides the unfortunate casting choices, the film also features exaggerated sound design running contrary to the film’s (excellent) naturalist cinematography: it’s torturous to sit through this costume drama that sounds like a sci-fi film when the doors on-screen open like the landing of UFO and our lady in corset moves like a Kung Fu master.


(In Bresson’s L’Argent doors open quietly and people walk lightly, but the drama unfolds magnificently.)




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