1 Hr., 30 Mins.
Lady Macbeth April 16, 2020
ady Macbeth (2016), the filmmaking debut of the acclaimed theater director William Oldroyd, is not a spinoff of the classic Shakespeare play but rather an adaptation of an 1865 novella, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, written by the Russian author Nikolai Leskov. (It’s a liberty-taking adaptation, to be sure: the action is reset from Russia to Northern England; the ending is completely reworked as to
be bleaker.) A then-20-year-old and then largely unknown Florence Pugh embodies the title character, a 17-year-old named Katherine. At the beginning of the movie, which is set in the 1860s, Katherine is married off to a local lord, Alexander (Paul Hilton), and relocates to a claustrophobic, gray estate on which he lives with his domineering father, Boris (Christopher Fairbank). The nightmarishness of the situation escalates when the men tell Katherine that she is forbidden from leaving the house, wherein rules are so stringent anyway that, in one case, where Katherine finds herself very sleepy during a late-night party, she is disallowed from going to bed before Alexander is ready himself. We are naturally automatically sympathetic to Katherine and her plight.
Lady Macbeth will test that sympathy. There comes a point in the movie where Alexander and Boris leave Katherine at the estate, alone, for an extended period. While she waits she starts to have an affair with handsome but impetuous farmhand Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis). After this, something shifts in her. High, perhaps, on this fleeting sense of autonomy, Katherine becomes increasingly unable to go back to the passivity defining her pre-affair life — to a murderous degree.
At first the movie seems en route to being a stylish, satisfying quasi-revenge fantasy — a violent, emotionally absorbing account of a woman who refuses to watch her life continue being tightly controlled by patriarchy. But because Katherine’s maid, Anna (Naomi Ackie), who is black, is often punished for deeds Katherine is responsible for, and because another one of Katherine’s victims is a young black boy whom she views as an unseemly interruption in the life she’s striving for, the movie becomes morally thornier and as such more disturbing, unforgettable. Lady Macbeth is, I think, ultimately a shrewd period allegory for the most destructive attributes of white feminism; Katherine’s liberation, which we suspect even she will not consider actualized upon the feature’s devastating finale, comes at the expense of marginalized people.
It’s riveting to watch Katherine evolve from naif to master manipulator. Pugh is so good in the role — her intense gaze hinting at the poison lurking underneath, her delivery progressively scarily unflinching — that she altogether avoids making Katherine’s villainy seem one-dimensional, like a quick “snap” followed by a long detour into wickedness. You can tell that Pugh, like Oldroyd, in many ways feels for Katherine but soon becomes wary about how she goes about trying to reclaim her existence. It’s a tremendous performance that especially now feels prescient of the success and steady acclaim Pugh would experience in just a few years. Decades from now, Pugh’s work in Lady Macbeth might garner a sort of “legendary starring debut” status, given the likelihood of there still being higher ascendence ahead. Perhaps we will someday think of it in similar terms as Isabelle Adjani’s turn in 1975’s The Story of Adèle H., Lauren Bacall’s in To Have and Have Not (1944). In Lady Macbeth, which recently became streamable on Hulu, Pugh is that good. A-