Movie Review: ‘LADY MACBETH’ – a riveting 19th Century romance-tragedy
Jared McMillan // Film Critic
When a viewer thinks of Victorian-era movies, the thought immediately skews toward Merchant Ivory productions: the lavish art direction, the costumes, the melodrama. Or it evokes films that are adaptations of Austen. Either way, there is a complete mindset that one has when sitting down to watch a film based in a Victorian setting. Which is one of the ways that LADY MACBETH manages to lure in the viewer by this comfort, giving every moment a sudden, shocking gravitas.
The film opens on the wedding of Katherine (Florence Pugh) and Alexander (Paul Hilton). The bride is shown in close-up to lay a foundation of isolation for Katherine’s soon-to-be life; we later find out she was sold to his family for their marriage. The film continues down this path with a montage of Katherine’s day, in isolation, kept away from the world.
When Alexander and his father, Boris (Christopher Fairbank), go away for various reasons, she is finally unconfined and unrestrained. While outside one day, she comes across a group of farmhands harassing her maid, Anna (Naomi Ackie). The main culprit is Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), who she is intrigued by, even though he is doing something detesting. This intrigue turns into a passionate affair that will consume everything around them.
Up to now, it sounds like a basic formula for every other romantic-period drama. Katherine’s femininity is stifled by her husband and father-in-law, which is a microcosm of social norms for that time, meeting the man she wishes to be with, can be free with in life. However, the second and third act unfold to show the lengths Katherine will go to in order to have her independence. Is she acting in desperation or calculation?
Everything about this film is calculated, as every frame translates to contemplation. Director William Oldroyd, coupled with Ari Wegner’s cinematography, makes sure to pull you close to Katherine’s journey. Interior scenes are shot with a dull palette while the camera remains on a stationary mount, echoing the control that the protagonist is under. Once she is outside, the camera has more movement, giving us all a chance to breathe. And it’s a brilliant move to not have a soundtrack, letting events play out without musical cues to enhance the impact of moments until the film’s climax leaves the audience in shock.
While Oldroyd’s feature-film debut is impressive, it would be nothing without the performance of Florence Pugh as Katherine. This role is meant to not only play the characters that surround Katherine, but the audience that observes Pugh. She acts with certainty and strength, oppressing emotions to show just beneath the surface. As Katherine becomes ever closer to her goal, Pugh shifts her imbalance at just the right moments, letting you feel the moral dilemma of self vs. others.
LADY MACBETH is based on Nikolai Leskov’s novel Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk, which takes that story and melds it into something that still mirrors a sociocultural climate of a struggle for women’s rights. Katherine is oppressed by rich white men, treated by her father-in-law as property, and treated by her husband with contempt and anger. But what takes the film into another level is its choice to not gloss over the classism within their world. Yes, we want Katherine to achieve freedom from her oppression; but it’s dichotomous to the fact that she doesn’t see her struggle in those beneath her, who are oppressed by everyone. This is brought to light through her relationship with Anna, who is African-European.
Showing how Katherine treats Anna takes the feminist subtext into a bigger picture; it’s no longer Katherine as a symbol for feminism, but rather a symbol for white feminism. For example, there is one shot in particular where Katherine and Anna cross paths in the stairwell. Anna is crying and vulnerable from the shame she feels after her abuse from the hired hands. Instead of consoling her, Katherine puts Anna “in her place” and puts her back to work; she goes upstairs to her quarters, while Anna goes downstairs. That one shot identifies Katherine as someone with privilege that she uses when she sees fit, and it plays in the background until the final minutes.
LADY MACBETH manages to play with our minds, starting the audience on one mentality while ending in another. The motif of “What would you do for your independence?” puts the viewer into a moral stance as she sacrifices hers, bringing the story to a point of discomfort. Pugh and Oldroyd push the boundaries while keeping restraint. It’s a Victorian-era romance turned Victorian-era tragedy, and it’s one of the year’s best films.
LADY MACBETH opens in limited release today, and opens in Dallas-Fort Worth on July 21.