In no way connected to Shakespeare beyond hinting at the psychosis to come (and even that’s a bit of a misdirect), ‘Lady Macbeth’ takes the sumptuous visual trappings of a British period drama and uses them to weave a deeply disturbing little tale. The movie is designed to catch a certain audience offguard and is a hell of a calling card for its fresh-faced director, writer, and star.
Katherine (Florence Pugh) enters the film as a victim of classic British patriarchy. She’s been traded to her new husband, Alexander (Paul Hilton), along with a piece of land to appease his father. Alexander has no interest in her, though, not even on their wedding night. Katherine’s life is limited to being crammed into a series of uncomfortable garments by her maid (an even more repressed Naomi Ackie) and told to pray whenever she dares open her mouth to the master of the house. Dismayed and trapped in her crummy little existence, Katherine lashes out and finds some carnal pleasure with a stable hand (Cosmo Jarvis) who catches her eye. Obviously, this is frowned upon in the dusty household, which pushes Katherine into a li’l murderin’ to earn her titular namesake.
Lush though the costumes and setting might seem, first-time feature director William Oldroyd never gives in to the pretty trappings of the traditional British costume drama. The clothes feel more painfully restrictive and impractical than ornate, and the country manner feels cold and empty. There’s no joy here. The patriarchal symbolism is clear and contemporary viewers can’t help but instantly fall for Katherine’s plight. The film has a clear feminist agenda that aligns viewers with the protagonist, so that even when she crosses lines it feels like a glorious rebellion against an oppressive society. However, Oldroyd’s deliberately still, sedate and chilly visuals betray that swell of rebellious satisfaction. Dark humor keeps the character’s actions somewhat enjoyable, but they never feel justified. Good thing too. The righteous violence and rebellion quickly give way to bloody madness.
At the center of the story is an absolutely fascinating character portrayed exquisitely by Florence Pugh in her first major lead role. She’s positioned as a victim, but Pugh never plays her as one. She’s always thinking, always very aware of her surroundings. There’s no sense of victimhood, just planning for revenge and pleasure with a sociopathic lack of empathy or understanding. Following her down her path is to empathize with Katherine and then slowly fear her. The actress plays this with a chilly conviction that suits her disturbed character without ever lurching into overplaying her hand. You follow her to the end hoping for the best and get punished for it, yet you can’t take your eyes off the remarkable actress. She commands the screen in a performance that will undoubtedly get noticed.
Director Oldroyd and writer Alice Birch (working from a novel by Nikolai Leskov) fill their meticulously framed yet unwelcoming canvas with other intriguing characters to match their heroine. Hilton and Fairbank’s patriarchal villains are credibly nasty, but also pathetic in their lost lives. Noami Ackie is heartbreaking as an ignored and abused maid so beaten down by the world she’s barely capable of raising her gaze, never mind speaking. Cosmo Jarvis does well as the hot stuff loverboy and easily-manipulated partner in crime. It’s worth noting that the latter two performers are black because in this tale of repression and abuse of social station, their unspoken race leads to them becoming victims in deliberately pointed ways. ‘Lady Macbeth’ might work first and foremost as a psychotically disturbed thriller, but it’s also weaving a complex critique of social hierarchy and power structures that’s as relevant for contemporary times as the period in which the film is set. There are many reasons why the film disturbs long after the credits roll and not all of them are to do with the blood that’s shed.
‘Lady Macbeth’ is a nasty little film for the art house crowd. It’s designed to pull in viewers looking for something set in a cozy and comfy period setting, only to assault the expectations and politics of the genre. It can be hard to stomach, but Oldroyd and his screenwriter deliver the story with such an arch sense of humor and a deliberately misleading set of sexual politics that it’s also quite a gripping ride to bloody and battered finish line. Despite not quite landing the final punches as intended, the film shows off some extraordinary promise for the budding director, writer, and star. This is an immensely talented group unafraid to probe uncomfortable places and leave audiences stumbling out of the dark less comfortable with the world than when they came in. We need more of that.