by Ken Bakely
The assumption we make going into William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth is that a movie with a stoic title, period setting, and British accents will represent a prestige, intellectual bent of restraint and introspection. Of course, this is silly, and it takes a film this unhinged for us to make that realization: this a blood-stained, sex-fueled, rage-drenched shot of shaking and quivering anarchy, spilling into perfunctory observations of moral decay and Machiavellian cunning as a response to repression. The script typifies the idea of a shock value choke, leaving little space to develop its characters or explore the themes it glosses over.
So why does it work? Florence Pugh. She stars as Katherine Lester, the role that the title (and the Nikolai Leskov novel on which the film is based), compares to the Shakespearean icon. A young woman in the Victorian era who is married off to a gruff and impenetrable heir (Paul Hilton), she is trapped in a loveless union, confined to the cold estate in which she lives, under the even more oppressive eye of her father-in-law, Boris (Christopher Fairbank). One day, when both men are away on business, she strikes up an impassioned affair with a worker named Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis). Word spreads that something unseemly is going on between the two, causing a tremendous backlash. In response, the decisive and unambiguous Katherine begins taking drastic actions in retaliation against her silencers. Naturally, she starts by murdering Boris.
This ends the first act, and it’s with a killing that Lady Macbeth really begins to rev up. Or rather, that Pugh does. She is a revelation on the screen, delivering each line of dialogue with an icy chill, and each smile and laugh with a cruel, gut-dropping undertone. We talk about performances that make movies as an exaggeration, but this is what we should mean. Taking Alice Birch’s flat and translucent script, featuring the machinations of a flat and translucent Katherine, Pugh cuts to the feeling, conveying the swirling emotions of a person whose soul is in an ever-strengthening effort to be crushed by the society that has locked her in that current position. The observations she makes – in body language, movement, and reaction – are without input from the writing, which specializes in on-the-nose actions and uninteresting personalities. She brings it to life. The film knows it, as it devotes countless shots to her, sitting in the center of the frame, looking directly into the camera, burning through the fourth wall and into our cores.
And it’s then that we realize what the movie is going to be, and can begin to evaluate it on those base merits. As Pugh drags things, kicking and screaming, into new realms of interpretation, the film’s entire focus shifts. Oldroyd’s stoic direction becomes a check on the backstabbing body count that rises throughout, and Jarvis’ befuddled but hopeful supporting turn as Sebastian suggests a character who may have been relegated to his eventual position from the very start. Factor in Fairbank’s snarling, haggard vitriol and Hilton’s shuttered, selfish muttering, and Lady Macbeth is a show of traits – single note ideas that can’t move beyond being pawns on Katherine’s chessboard, with even the protagonist never thought of in more than broad strokes.
It’s the details which, to paraphrase a famous comparison, accentuate the subtleties with a light feather, and stimulate the already shocking moments with the whole chicken. We see Katherine in a frenzied spiral for a shot of freedom, of autonomy, clearing away the brick walls and barriers that keep her from even the simplest realizations of identity. This is entertainment beside itself, what could have been a tale of female empowerment, had the female at the center been written in a more challenging and individualistic way. Does she come into herself, or does she end up occupying the same authoritarian mindset of those which put her there? Lady Macbeth lacks the wherewithal to truly parse the ramifications of these questions, but it does answer them in partial ways. One thing that can be said is this: at the start of the film, Katherine enjoys irritating Boris and the others with giggles and snarky comments. But by the end, amidst her chaos, she scarcely utters a word.