Editor Chloe Woods reviews William Oldroyd’s feature debut.
WARNING: Put your spoilers in the air like you just don’t care! (No, seriously, don’t read the midsection if you haven’t seen the film.)
We remember the story of Lady Macbeth in Shakespeare’s Scottish play, yes? The wife who urged her husband to murder that he might be king, went mad with guilt, and died amidst cries of, “out, damn’d spot”? The name of the film is a trick: this is not that story, but an ultimately darker and more cynical take on human nature.
It is a very good film. Florence Pugh stars as Katherine in William Oldroyd (directing) and Alice Birch’s (screenplay) adaptation of Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. In this version, set in Victorian England, Katherine is the uncertain young bride of a middle-aged husband who either cannot or will not have sex with her, but is quite happy to pleasure himself to the sight of her naked body. When he disappears for months on end, she is left to contend with her father-in-law – a particularly vile caricature of a 19th-century household patriarch. The tensions of gender and age between the two, and additionally of class and race versus the household staff, are vividly articulated. This tension reaches an early climax when the young, black maidservant Anna (Naomi Ackie) is forced to kneel like a dog by the white, male, wealthy Boris (Christopher Fairbank) for a problem Katherine, and not Anna, has caused.
It’s easy to sympathise with Katherine early in the film. Florence Pugh has perfected a butter-wouldn’t-melt expression, and Katherine’s life is no enviable one: bored stiff, exhausted by the daily rigmarole of restrictive hair and clothing, she has been bought and sold for a parcel of her family’s land and is now expected to act as a brood mare for a husband who won’t, as she points out, actually fuck her. That she strays into a dalliance with the new stablehand, Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), is no surprise; and neither, ultimately, is her response when their discovery causes Sebastian to be viciously beaten and locked in the shed. But Katherine’s calmness over the act is chilling. The shift in the balance of power is almost tangible: Katherine first invites, then orders Anna to sit with her while her father-in-law loudly expires in a locked room, and Anna obeys. Anna has always known Katherine is not a person to cross, and now knowledge of the murder – which only she could reveal – drives her into mute madness.
Katherine thinks herself victorious, and moves Sebastian into the house as her prize. But she is thwarted by unfolding events: first the return of her husband, Alexander (Paul Hilton); then the reveal of his bastard child and ward by a secret mistress. (The child Teddy and his grandmother – played by Anton Palmer and Golda Rosheuvel respectively – are both black and buzz with a sense of recently-acquired wealth and status, giving the lie to anyone who claims it is “unrealistic” to portray diversity in historic England.) At each turn, Katherine’s response is to murder any person who gets in her way. It is Sebastian, though cast in the role of ‘Macbeth’, who grows increasingly uncomfortable with the actions she forces him to participate in, and ultimately repents and attempts to reveal her crimes. Though Katherine’s denials are unconvincing, there is no question a mad stablehand will be believed over a pretty young widow, and she manages to turn the blame on Sebastian and Anna too, finally wiping the slate clean of anyone who might betray her. Now lady of the house, carrying Sebastian’s child and apparently free of all guilt, as the camera settles in for the final shot we see discontent in her expression. Katherine feels she has lost, because Sebastian – over whom she desired complete dominion – has escaped her control.
The film is a fascinating, taut portrayal of a singular cold individual and her impact upon her environment. As events unfold, more of Katherine’s true nature is revealed; there is never a point at which we are surprised by her actions, even as we wonder whether the film or the woman will follow each point through to its obvious – if gruesome – conclusion. I only have one question: why are all these women monsters? Perhaps it’s because I went to see Elle (our review) recently and that film is still fresh in my mind, but it’s a common and jarringly specific trope: the female-led drama in which the central character is arguably justified in taking action against her (male) abusers and is simultaneously, coincidentally or not, an outright psychopath with no apparent human feeling. It’s not clear if we’re meant to believe Katherine has gained her coldness from her cruel environment: while we see her mimicking her husband’s mind tricks at one point, we also never see her be kind (she could quite easily have rescued Anna from humiliation) – except maybe to Teddy, who she is nonetheless quite willing to suffocate and only refers to as “that boy” rather than by his name. So probably not.
How much of Katherine’s story would change if she was not a monster? If she was capable of caring for any person but herself, or for any goal other than her own power plays? We might find the affair forgivable, and even the disposal of Boris – driven by anger over his treatment of Katherine’s lover – does not render her totally beyond redemption. It is at her husband’s murder she crosses the line, and at the child’s she seals it. But Katherine’s nature is unchanged through the film, visibly so: all her acts were those of the monster, guiltless, utterly selfish. There is pity in her situation but the film presents murder as her only recourse and any woman who turned to it would be questionable; but instead of asking whether she might be justified the film compounds its presentation of Katherine as monstrous by having her continue to kill when it is no longer clearly necessary. What should she have done: suffered in silence? There are more options than this. For some women in history, violence has indeed been the only escape, but more rarely than we see in such films. And those driven to kill do not walk away with smiles on their faces; Shakespeare understood this, four hundred years ago, in the madness of the first Lady Macbeth. But now, by this trope, by its reinforcement across multiple films, we hear the subtle suggestion that any woman who dares to take action against the situation she finds herself in must be something half-inhuman: to be feared rather than identified with. And this is potentially a very dangerous message to send.
As I said, as a film, it’s very good. A minimalist soundtrack and heightened focus on present, physical sounds help to draw the viewer in. The cast is universally solid and Lady Macbeth avoids the drama-school feel of many period dramas: the characters swear, make sarcastic remarks, struggle to hold in laughter and behave in all the other little human ways we tend to remove from our image of the Victorians. The film is quietly funny at the right moments, a near-impossible feat to pull off in a work as chilling as this one. Many movies try to relieve their tension with comedy and relatively few succeed; Lady Macbeth falls into that elite minority. Put together, all this produces a film which belies its potential surrealism to feel straightforward and lived-in – the poster shot of Katherine in her blue dress is striking rather than typical of the movie. It’s worth seeing. But it’s worth being aware of what it’s saying, too.
Lady Macbeth is in UK cinemas now. See the trailer below: