Lady Macbeth movie review: the serpent under the innocent flower

Lady Macbeth green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

An astonishing tale of privilege and power: stark, searing, and brutal, almost a Victorian companion to Get Out. Florence Pugh is a force of nature.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): I’m desperate for stories about women
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
I have not read the source material (but I have read a synopsis of it)
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

This is not yer typical costume drama. This is not a costume drama like we’ve ever seen before. This is not tea with the vicar and genteel walks in the countryside; it’s not even Austenly headstrong young women who crave independence or at least romance with a well-matched partner. Lady Macbeth is as stark and searing and brutal as its cold, windswept north-of-England setting. It is, in some ways, a costume-drama accompaniment to Get Out,tweet a tale of privilege and power, of violent sexual appropriation, of sharp challenges to our sympathies. It’s an astonishing film.

The gorgeous cinematography evokes the domestic still lifes of Vermeer.

The year is 1865, and young Katherine has just been wedded to the much-older wealthy merchant Alexander (Paul Hilton: London Road). The marriage is a pure business arrangement: she, and a piece of land, have been sold to Alexander, and no one pretends otherwise. “My father bought you,” her husband informs her coldly, by way of letting her know that, as his property, she had better behave herself. That includes refraining from walking on the moors, which is just about her only pleasure: she is to stay indoors. Director William Oldroyd and screenwriter Alice Birch, both making their feature debuts, create a portrait of Katherine’s life as a chilling tableau, of static silence in an almost empty house — the furnishings are sparse, and Alexander soon disappears on nebulous business — of loneliness and sensory deprivation. Ari Wegner’s gorgeous cinematography frequently evokes the domestic still lifes of Vermeer, though (appropriately) stripped of the warmth and implied liveliness of the painter’s work.

“Will you still love me when my femininity turns toxic?”
“Will you still love me when my femininity turns toxic?”tweet

As Katherine, Florence Pugh is all suppressed fury, ready to burst with frustration at a vigorous young woman’s enforced stillness; the actor seems to roar in from nowhere — this is her first leading role — to dominate the screen, even when she’s barely moving. And then, when Katherine can stand the isolation and the solitude no more, and she begins an aggressively physical relationship with handsome groomsman Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), Pugh becomes a force of nature, giving unrestrained outlet to Katherine’s self-appointed liberation. There is a raw, dangerous sexiness to Pugh’s performance,tweet one that is all about finding her own hunger and enthusiasm, and nothing to do with what men think of her or how men look at her — not even Sebastian. (There is, in fact, a scene in which Alexander’s looking at her for nothing but his own pleasure is depicted as disgusting.)

And that’s when things start to get really interesting for Katherine, and really unsettling for us. Hers is a cruel world that cannot abide a woman so free, and for a while, we cheer her audacity as she pushes back against those who would put her back in her tiny box… until she takes it a step far beyond the cheerable. Then we’re forced to wonder whether a taste of self-determination has made it impossible for her to turn back, or whether there’s actually something fundamentally broken in her in a way that has nothing to do with her circumstances and everything to do with her basic character (sociopaths gonna sociopath?), or whether there’s a fundamental brokenness to her that is entirely the result of the constraints that have been placed upon her by her culture.

This is the tragedy of a woman who can only wield power in conniving ways.

The film’s title has nothing to do with Shakespeare, except metaphorically; it’s loosely based (the ending is very different) on Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 novella “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk,” and the title in both instances captures the tragedy of a woman whose only expression of power must come in conniving ways, because it’s the only avenue she has. Lady Macbeth doesn’t excuse Katherine, though, just explains her, perhaps… and the damage she does only becomes an even more savage cultural critique when we understand how the little bit of power and privilege she does have, as the wife of a wealthy merchant, allows her to exert control over Sebastian — who is, after all, only a servant — and to use and abuse of household maid and cook, Anna (Naomi Ackie: Doctor Who). (There is an extra layer to the power and privilege Katherine has in the fact that Anna is black, and Sebastian intriguingly racially ambiguous; there are other essential characters who are black as well. The overall dynamic would be much the same if everyone here was white, but the casting does casually put paid to the unfortunate notion that there is no place for actors of color in British costume dramas.)

I love this film, for its unexpectedness, for its perceptiveness, for how it never flinches in the face of the monstrous reality that our society has long condoned punching down. And still does, to an unforgivable degree. Lady Macbeth’s polite Victorian savagery remains very recognizable today.tweet

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