MUR­DER BY NUM­BERS

How Lady Mac­beth di­rec­tor Wil­liam Ol­droyd filmed the year’s most har­row­ing scene

Empire (Australasia) - - Review - WORDS PHIL DE SEM­LYEN

THAT OLD MOVIE adage about never work­ing with chil­dren doesn’t cut much ice with Wil­liam Ol­droyd. The di­rec­tor’s de­but film, Lady Mac­beth, a mas­ter­fully chilly adap­ta­tion of Niko­lai Leskov’s 19th cen­tury novella, saw him —and con­sider this the mother of all spoiler warn­ings — tackle one of the most chal­leng­ing scenes imag­in­able. In it, An­ton Palmer’s young ward, Teddy, is suf­fo­cated on a sofa by Florence Pugh’s ruth­less heiress Kather­ine, with some help from her lover Se­bas­tian (Cosmo Jarvis), to free her from a po­ten­tial threat to her for­tune. It’s gru­elling and deeply un­com­fort­able view­ing, and to make it work Ol­droyd needed the full co­op­er­a­tion of Palmer, then just seven years old.

“Trust was key,” ex­plains Ol­droyd, “so it was im­por­tant that An­ton got to know Florence, Cosmo and me a bit be­fore we started shoot­ing.” To cap­ture the mur­der it­self, Ol­droyd played to his young ac­tor’s com­pet­i­tive na­ture. “An­ton was never go­ing to un­der­stand what he had to do in the film, and his mother didn’t want him to know, so we broke the scene down and made it a se­ries of games he had to win.” First, Palmer was bet that he couldn’t lie still and count to a hun­dred. “Then I said, ‘When Florence touches your head, you’ve got to jump up and run to the door — I bet you can’t get there,’” re­calls Ol­droyd, “so Florence was phys­i­cally pulling him down. Then I bet him that when she touched his shoul­der, he couldn’t lie still and count to a hun­dred.” Palmer was game.

“‘I bet you I can,’ he’d say.”

For Pugh, the mur­der was un­der­stand­ably “dif­fi­cult and stress­ful” to shoot. “I was in con­trol of this kid who has a manic amount of en­ergy and thinks it’s a game,” she re­mem­bers. “But we did it and it was great that Will wanted to get it in one take. It kept it pretty short.”

The fi­nal three-minute shot — one of three takes al­lowed by Palmer’s watch­ing mother — has di­vided au­di­ences. “Some have been an­gry,” notes Ol­droyd, “be­cause up un­til that point they were root­ing for Kather­ine and [sud­denly] it’s no longer clear cut. Other peo­ple feel, no, it was nec­es­sary.”

As for Palmer’s take on the mat­ter, we’ll ask him. When he’s legally al­lowed to see the film in 2028.

LADY MAC­BETH IS OUT 4 DE­CEM­BER ON DVD, BLU-RAY AND DOWN­LOAD

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