An enthralling period drama-cum-thriller sees rising star Florence Pugh shine in a devilish 19th-century adaptation of Russian novel.
This review contains extremely mild spoilers and nothing more than is hinted at in the film’s official trailer.
Initially, Lady Macbeth gives no indication as to the direction it is going to take. When one thinks of period dramas set in rural England during this era, the works of Jane Austen come to mind, images of ladies and gentlemen perched around the dinner table in well-mannered fashion, or strolling through the luscious gardens and courtyards of their sizeable family homes. Of idealistic romance, family politics, and archaic outrage. Of female repression, race division, and forbidden love. On the surface, Lady Macbeth appears to be that film, and in fact, it does include all of these things. But with one major difference. Often, period dramas will attempt to portray the suppression and mistreatment of women by their male counterparts, only here, protagonist Katherine (Florence Pugh) isn’t going to let them get away with it.
Katherine is a young woman from a poor family, and we first see her in her wedding dress, being sold off to a man twice her age. Bound within the confining walls of a large, draughty house that the camera only ever really shows the interior of, Katherine is ordered to stay indoors and read her prayer book while her cruel husband (Paul Hilton) and his even crueler father (Christopher Fairbank) do as they please. During an extended absence of the two men, and a lengthy spell of solidarity for Katherine bar the company of her housemaids, she embarks on an affair with a stableboy laboring for the estate. From here, lust and desire take over all other intuition, and Katherine decides she will stop at nothing in order to continue the relationship after her husband has returned home.
Unpredictability and muted atmosphere are huge factors into Lady Macbeth’s rich and subtle storytelling, but none more-so than the stunning, nuanced, revelatory performance from 21-year-old British actress Florence Pugh, in what is remarkably only her second feature film following her breakout role in Carol Morley’s 2014 mystery drama The Falling. Pugh plays Katherine with defiant attitude, modest grace, elegance, and poised bravery, informing the audience early on that she is “thick-skinned”. Immediately endearing, she seems independently wise and fiery by nature, and yet she is living in a time in which she is not expected to be or allowed to be either of these things; a character that the audience can root for. Suppressed and abused, she is easy to sympathize with, and a hoping that she will rise above these detestable men drives the film’s first half. Another 45 minutes later, the audience may regret these hopes as Katherine’s character escalates from innocent and sweet, to something genuinely shocking and somewhat frightening.
Lady Macbeth’s detraction from its genre roots is a major selling point, and it is felt that this is a movie that could appeal to a generally difficult to captivate teenage audience. Gone are the sometimes difficult dialogue and plodding pace that plagues other stories of old, replaced by a racy concoction of sex, violence, and vengeance; the film feels more often like a thriller than it does a romantic drama. It is very much a contemporary period piece and one that will have no trouble connecting to a modern audience. Katherine is by all means a modern woman, a rebel at heart that would not seem out of place in today’s society, a liberated female who is not willing to conform to the attitudes of her time, and knows she deserves the ability to do what she wants, when she wants, with whom she wants, regardless of patriarchal rule.
This positive gender representation is accentuated through her stable boy boyfriend Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), and as the tale unfolds and the story progresses, the gender roles within the two’s relationship are reversed, with Sebastian being much more sensitive to the unwinding events, and Katherine becoming increasingly delusional and ruthless, taking over as the dominative force in the relationship and unintentionally corrupting the mind of her previously carefree and nonchalant partner. It is interesting to see this shift between the two, and it is not often we see such a vivid depiction of masculinity broken down in favor of a woman’s emotional strength and power, regardless of how twisted Katherine’s psyche becomes. Despite this refreshing perspective on gender roles within this genre, there are still some issues pertaining to Katherine and Sebastian’s first sexual encounter. Sebastian, unannounced and completely outside of jurisdiction, enters her home, barges into her room, and upon resistance, attempts to force himself on her. Still completely reluctant, Katherine manages to push him off her, before succumbing to temptation and passionately kissing him despite his actions moments before. From henceforth, their relationship blossoms. This depiction hardly condemns sexual assault, and Sebastian is positioned as a fairly agreeable character from then on, as though he hadn’t just been equally as detestable as Katherine’s husband and father-in-law.
Another criticism to bring to light is the under-developed depiction of racism within the household. Despite Katherine being likable and victimized for a large portion of the film, from early on she seems unwarrantedly cruel to black housemaid Anna (Naomi Ackie), who spends much of the film mute as a result of the shocking things she witnesses. Anna is clearly victimized throughout the film due to her race, but this feels like more of an obligatory depiction rather than anything worth value, as the film does little to create any meaning or message out of the issue. Rather, it seems as if this depiction of racism is merely present to give an early hint at the white protagonist’s treacherous side or to further depict Anna as a victim during a later story beat.
Fortunately, these issues come across more as poor judgment than anything explicitly offensive, and they do not detract from the viewing pleasure. The story is abundantly compelling, and its carefully detailed sound design creates an atmosphere that complements the thriller elements of the film with very little use of music. At its heart, Lady Macbeth is a love story that boils over the point of bittersweet into the realms of sin and evil, and documents the things that people will do to protect unconditional love, regardless of extremity and consequence. Its anti-hero is a fascinatingly crafted central figure brought to life by the phenomenal Florence Pugh. Make no mistake, this is her film, and although it is highly unlikely, she should most certainly be a name in contention come Oscar season.