Studio: BBC Films
Director: William Oldroyd
Writer: Alice Birch
Producer: Fodhla Cronin O’Reilly
Stars: Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis, Paul Hilton, Naomi Ackie, Christopher Fairbank
Sold into an arranged marriage, a woman in 19th century England begins an illicit affair that empowers her with dark desires.
Sold to a wealthy Englishman as part of a package deal with a parcel of farmland, Katherine’s arranged marriage isn’t just loveless. It’s rigidly unadventurous.
Her domineering father-in-law Boris routinely insists that Katherine perform her wifely duties and bear his family an heir. But Katherine’s emasculated husband Alexander has little physical interest in her whatsoever, content to instead pleasure himself while she stands naked against a wall.
When both men of the manor are away, Katherine inadvertently interrupts an assault on her servant Anna by a pack of Anna’s male peers. Whether inspired by monotonous ennui or a lustful stir of curiosity, Katherine unexpectedly sends a signal that she might be game to take the nude victim’s place. Stable hand Sebastian takes the dare only for Katherine to quickly slap him back in his place.
Katherine begins playing an internal tug-of-war between relishing the reins of controlling the estate and willingly submitting herself to another man. Sebastian’s aggressive advances are ultimately reciprocated and the duo beings an illicit affair moving Katherine from demure to dangerous. Dark desires awoken within the woman cause her to abandon concern for consequence as Katherine flirts with further risks to forcefully take, and keep, everything she wants.
Much ado has been rightly made about Florence Pugh’s mark-making performance in “Lady Macbeth.” The film, which trades the 1865 Russia setting of Nikolai Leskov’s source novel “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District” for 19th century England, creates complexities out of Katherine’s growing callousness that have Pugh playing the character with concurrent stripes of sympathetic victimhood and destructive wickedness.
With one hand, Pugh portrays Katherine as an insolent child perpetually testing the bounds of societal impositions. Within the other fist, Pugh infuses Katherine with contemporary savvy, making her a modern woman displaced in a period setting. She knowingly sneers at outmoded patriarchal concepts, as if confidently foreseeing how such expectations will shift in 150 years time. She adapts lessons learned from her abuse to become an abuser herself, evolving empowerment into evil as “Lady Macbeth” examines Katherine under a nature versus nurture lens.
Although her heart outwardly blooms to embrace the ribald romance, it inwardly calcifies. The rub is that investment in Katherine’s conflict withers in step with this transformation. “Lady Macbeth” shuts out its audience from emotional immersion as drama remains dark, yet becomes drily stiff, like one of the woman’s crinoline skirts and accompanying corset.
A theatrical presentation relies on quiet sequences establishing situational characterization through long looks of dour expressions in mundane moments. Backs stand as straight as the room corners. Environments are arranged with determined order. There is a clinical feel to the film’s Spartan coldness that is at once necessary for the story’s style, yet distancing as an overall atmosphere.
Academic minds interested in thematic dissection can take any number of knives to the movie. As an introspective exploration of someone who may or may not be a subversive sociopath, “Lady Macbeth” invites interpretive discourse involving its subtext of current gender norm parallels and culpability. Coupled with exquisite cinematic craftsmanship, this puts “Lady Macbeth” in the category of film festival darlings that arthouse critics generally go gaga for.
How that translates to mainstream appeal is another story. Florence Pugh is powerful. Katherine’s initial plight and subsequent elevation are captivating. The film itself is picturesque.
At the same time, it is difficult to not come away from the film feeling as though the movie’s sound leaves an echo instead of sinking into the soul. Because Katherine’s identity is in flux, the movie finds its own assuredness wavering. Hollowness takes the place of heartlessness when action intensifies without necessarily having meaning outside of macabre shocks. Much like Katherine, “Lady Macbeth” may be missing maturity in its convictions. When that becomes the takeaway sense from the experience, the film’s value as artful entertainment or as entertaining art becomes as much of a question as “Lady Macbeth’s” ultimate purpose.
Review Score: 65