LADY MACBETH: Sex, Murder, Lies
Lady Macbeth pokes at the romanticized perspective of Victorian-set films, becoming more akin to a macabre neo-noir.
The very title “Lady Macbeth” informs us of the film’s modernist mission statement and sense of revisionism. The very evocation of the term relates to a malevolent, controlling or sinister women; there’s an acknowledgement of its meta connotation, and a heads up to the callous frigidity that lies ahead.
Before entering the gates of this film, the very title conjures up a bevy of interpretation. With the Victorian setting, a period we know to be rife with gender degradation and classicist oppression, where exactly will the titular implications fit in a story about a young woman in the throes of an arranged marriage to a foul husband and his stifling family?
When a movie arrives without a frame of reference or familiar context it takes on a refreshing quality. Here is a stately looking drama, its territory feels reminiscent of lavish adaptations and sumptuous melodramas. Of course, Lady Macbeth is anything but sumptuous or lavish.
Where Did This Come From?
There are only minor flickers of familiarity in this cold-hearted story of passion, murder, and deception; we meet Katherine, a beautiful young bride to a cruel and abusive husband. Pulling strings to this arranged marriage is Katherine’s new father-in-law Boris (Christopher Fairbank), a prosperous but miserly landowner in the hopes that his son Alexander (Paul Hilton) and Katherine will bear an heir.
While the two Neanderthals are tending to some business, Katherine catches the eye of handsome stablehand Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), and the two carry on an affair, resulting in a deepening spiral of murderous deceit. We know their flawed union is destined to fail, and we are aware Katherine’s passions will ignite elsewhere, but just how dark will the story get, and how far will the film take us?
Articulate and unapologetic, the narrative has the furnished veneer of a stuffy costume drama, and, in what feels like a reactionary measure the story is more akin to a tawdry neo-noir that veers into some truly nasty bits of the macabre. Lady Macbeth is a movie without a soul, and that’s essential in ingesting the perverse charm you get from the film’s grim demeanor and swift execution.
Brought to life by the illuminating Florence Pugh, Katherine’s evolution as a character has an indescribable ebb and flow. At first, her instinctive rejection of the onslaught of sexism (repeatedly urged to stay inside, forbidden to take to the air) and the denial of her male overlords bears an empowering sensibility, but as time goes, Katherine’s moral compass whittles away to nonexistent. Her character and the movie itself offers some interesting insights into gender roles, and the objectification of women, but they are eclipsed by the inherent amorality that follows. The film doesn’t fall into the wayward stereotypes of Russian literature, bypassing the typical Catholic inflections of deviated redemption or the reliance on predestination. Katherine is guided by her own agenda instead of the dictates of fate; she’s a prototypical femme-fatale, or better yet, a Lady Macbeth?
Florence Pugh: A Bright New Talent
Standing at the front of this picture is the enigmatic Florence Pugh; she seethes a natural swagger of provincial beauty, her sexually charged performance is striking without falling into the realm of lazy posturing. With radiant energy, she’s piercing and capable of finding quirky moments of humor in between the doom and gloom, as if she understands a joke no one else would understand.
Lady Macbeth has a quicksand story where consequences and power plays beget a frustrated mounting wave of tension, despite the reprehensible characters that screenwriter Alice Birch and director William Oldroyd (their debut) based on Nikolai Leskov’s novella “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsenk”, burrow to the core of the story.
They dispense with flattery or anything resembling sympathetic characters, and the result is a tightly wound and shrewdly artful feature that has no qualms with the cold blood that runs through its veins – but its pulse is more erratically enticing than most contemporary features that are all too content to tread the tepid thematic waters sanctuary. If this is a snapshot into the way millennial disenchantment lenses the pomp and elegance of the past, I’d say show us more.
Lean & Mean
Little time is wasted in this feature; clocking in at eighty-nine minutes, Lady Macbeth works its strong cast into the handsomely mounted production. There’s a no-nonsense quality that suits the material, and its naturalistic connective tissue binds each scene. The unlikely sensibilities that work for the unusual tenor of Lady Macbeth excels as an exposé in contrasts; the classy exterior is a canvas for lecherous scheming.
The scenes are calibrated with symmetry and the cinematography is elegant, but there’s a shaky organic quality throughout; punctuated by simple, efficient editing. The beauty is self-sustained, colors (specifically one of Katherine’s Cobalt blue dresses comes to mind), architecture and space speak for themselves. There’s no need for dissolves, slow-motion, crosscuts or any other such confectionery blemishes.
Lady Macbeth: Moving Forward
Lady Macbeth is an unexpected movie that is so self-assured with its trashiness; you can’t help but respect the position it assumes as a mannered and elegant exploration of all things terrible. If you ever wanted to see a Merchant Ivory production of a Brian De Palma film, here’s your chance. Or if you yearn for something mischievous, dirty, and icy around the heart, embrace your inner smuttiness and seek out this movie.
Decidedly, Lady Macbeth is not for all tastes, and hard to describe in terms of tone and genre; while it deconstructs the ornate romanticism of bonnet dramas, provides a protagonist that’s a catalyst for feminism but also asserts Katherine as a menacing sociopath, how does one interpret this dual-edged character?
Lady Macbeth received a limited theatrical release July 17 2017, and is still playing in select theatres through Europe.
“The clock has run out on sexual assault, harassment and inequality in the workplace. It’s time to do something about it.” Read the Letter of Solidarity here. Make a donation to the legal fund here.