William Shakespeare didn’t see this one coming! The master of developing a complicated and layered plot, weaving together profoundly interesting characters would never have envisioned his character of Lady Macbeth being taken on such an extraordinary journey…but I’m sure he’d be thrilled with the outcome! Using his character’s name as a reference point in this new film directed by William Oldroyd and written by Alice Birch, adapting Nikolai Leskov’s book “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” to create one of the most powerful and chilling films depicting a lonely and unfulfilled housewife. Set in rural England in the early 19th century, Katherine is wed to a distant, cold, and uncaring middle-aged man. She meets and begins an affair with a young stable worker, but this is just the beginning of the continuous downward spiral of morality. Equating her with Lady Macbeth is strikingly chilling.
Katherine (Florence Pugh) is a young woman, just barely having left her childhood behind, standing at the alter to wed a man at least twice her age. Her trepidation is palpable as she is assisted by the housemaid Anna (Naomi Ackie) to prepare for the activities of the wedding night that lie ahead. Alexander’s (Paul Hilton) interactions are quite unexpected, but sets the tone for the remainder of the film. He’s more than cold; he’s harsh. Treating Katherine more like a dog than his wife, he sets incomprehensible restrictions upon her to which you see the blood begin to boil deep inside. We first get a glimpse into what makes her tick as she figuratively kicks the dog in the barn to save a young woman from humiliation or worse. Using the verbal commands her husband used with her, she lashes out at these men, ordering them to obey her. She takes control. It’s an unexpected situation tha
t makes you cheer for her while wanting to reprimand her for doing so. The emotional scales begin to weigh more heavily in one direction as we get a “taste” of her intolerance for the despicable treatment by her father-in-law, Boris (Christopher Fairbank).
Katherine’s rebellious nature cannot be quelled and when Alexander takes an extended trip, her physical needs bring her to Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis). Katherine’s grasp of manipulation is extraordinary as we see her take a potential rape situation and turn the tables. Their steamy love affair doesn’t go unnoticed by Anna as the two women’s relationship also spirals downward. We see this in Anna’s physical treatment, aka care, of Katherine; the cinching of the corset, the scrubbing in the bath, the temperature of the water and we have emotional sympathy for Katherine. Being treated unequally and rebelling against this is an act that we wholeheartedly support. But we slowly begin to see things unravel. Never have I watched a movie where the protagonist evolves into the antagonist, delicately yet forcefully.
This extraordinary period piece explores the time where women were not only second-class citizens, but were treated as property and completely oppressed. It’s symbolic of what happens when a person is repeatedly emotionally beaten, but even more than that, it is a study in survival at any cost. Katherine is never truly out of control, but she easily crosses boundaries that most of us, thankfully, would not. There is a fine line between repression and oppression and the results of these actions are exponentially different. The film is an arc of anticipation, building anxiety to how far this woman will go. Our feelings of empathy turn to sympathy and then to horror as we are shocked by her actions. It’s knowing that the volcano will erupt, but you’re peering over the top, watching the lava slowly rise and yet somehow hoping it will not blow.
Pugh is simply sublime in exhibiting her intellectual grasp of the character. She exudes strength and resolve in her character while slowly revealing Katherine’s innermost turmoil. Pugh masterfully performs this uniquely complex role filled with passion, outwardly muted anger, and continuous calculated acts to protect herself and her future. We can see the wheels turning as she plans her next move, understated and always crystal clear. It’s truly an Oscar-worthy performance. Ackie’s portrayal of a young black female servant is equally as complex as her character’s relationship with Katherine is unexpected. The entire cast seems to respond to the direction of Oldroyd, allowing the story to unfold with precision as we are spellbound by each character and the interactions.
“Lady Macbeth” is a masterpiece of writing, acting, and directing. As commanding as the dialogue is, what is not said is equally as intense. This comes from deft direction and intuitive acting, particularly from Pugh. While there are many moments of silence, the subtle action within the scene says more than any dialogue could—the scrubbing of Katherine’s back, slowly, harshly; the hollow sound of the footsteps on the stairs of the house equates to the emptiness Katherine feels, but can never be filled. The silence that Katherine experiences lulls her into a sleepy stupor and the horses hooves outside make your heart race in fear. The setting is also important along with the costuming. Of course, there is attention to detail for the time period, but it is what the camera accentuates that creates the mood and atmosphere we experience. The blank walls and solid colors bring a sense of emotional starkness and the cold wind that moves through the heather and grasses as Katherine’s hair flows freely creates a hope for the future with some trepidation. It’s this attention to each and every
There are definitive parallels between Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’ and “Lady Macbeth” with the affairs, the murders, the secrets, and one scene of Katherine washing her hands in the river. Loyalty versus morality is also extraordinarily portrayed in both stories, but it is this newest creation that delves much more deeply into the complexity of social issues of the time and the overall psychological impact—oppression and inequality can create a monster.
“Lady Macbeth” is a rare creation, integrating elements of a familiar story, but elevating it exponentially while addressing relevant social issues of the time period as well as today. It’s a complicated story of power, oppression, greed, lust, loyalty and most importantly self-preservation. The acting is exquisite, the written and performed dialogue elegant, and the expectional precision of direction, cinematography, and attention to detail is unparalleled. “Lady Macbeth” deserves to be viewed, analyzed, and discussed at greater lengths—it’s a timeless tale that is at once chilling and horrifying as it is psychologically impactful. I couldn’t give a film higher accolades.