Have you ever seen a film that attempts to play in the arena of a very specific genre, but doesn’t quite know how to get there? Unfortunately, that’s how ‘Lady Macbeth’ plays out. As a black comedy, it has a lot of potential, but the filmmakers had no clue how to create one out of a period piece story.
Adapted from a novel by Nikolai Leskov called ‘Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk’, the film tells the story of Katherine (Florence Pugh), a young woman in 1800s England who is married off to a terrible family. Her father-in-law is a crotchety and vile old widower who doesn’t possess an ounce of respect for women. Yet to consummate the marriage, her husband is more dedicated to his work than his wife. He has never shown any affection and would rather make her stand naked with her face to a wall while he masturbates in the corner than actually touch her. This marriage thing isn’t at all what it’s cracked up to be. Bored from this shut-in lifestyle, she has no motivation to get up in the morning.
Both men damn her to confinement and refuse to let her do anything that might make her happy. When they both leave on business, she exercises this newfound temporary freedom to the fullest. Not only does she eat and drink as much as she wants, she begins a sexual fling with a grubby peasant boy. However, having experienced the fancy life that she believed would come from this marriage, she’s not about to give it up. When the father-in-law returns from business, Katherine promptly poisons him. Having committed murder, it’s obvious that she’s willing to do anything it takes to keep her lavish lifestyle.
Imagine a period piece rendition of ‘Very Bad Things’ that doesn’t quite know how to be what it is. That’s what ‘Lady Macbeth’ feels like. Although wildly dark and outrageous things repeatedly happen, they’re rarely satisfying. Just as the filmmakers have no clue how to execute this hybrid genre film, the actors also have no clue how to play their parts.
The film’s potential is never fully realized on the big screen. Based on the direction that the screenplay takes the story, I imagine that the book better nails its dark intent. Unfortunately, this adaptation misses the mark.