Film Review: Lady Macbeth

by Carrie Kahn on July 21, 2017

What’s done cannot be undone: And that’s the way she wants it

Katherine (Florence Pugh) is restless and bored as the much younger wife of a middle-aged man who shows no interest in her. 

If Lady Macbeth is remembered for anything after its initial release today, it will be for introducing the mostly unknown British actress Florence Pugh to the world. Just 19 years old when she made the film, Pugh, in the picture’s title role, is reminiscent of a young Kate Winslet, and, based on her work here, is bound to go on to an equally impressive and acclaimed career.

Despite its title, director William Oldroyd’s first feature film is not another cinematic version of Shakespeare’s Scottish play. Rather, it’s an adaptation of an 1865 novella by Russian author Nikolai Leskov titled Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. Before this film, the story’s most famous alternate iteration was a 1930s Russian opera, which makes sense, as Leskov’s narrative is operatic in scope. And although the story’s heroine (or, perhaps more accurately, anti-heroine) is never called “Lady Macbeth” in the film, the Shakespearean underpinnings of her character are readily apparent. With her icy, calculating temperament, Pugh’s Katherine embodies the nature of the Bard’s ambitious, murderous Queen.

Katherine (Florence Pugh) finds passion with Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), her husband’s employee. 

With the help of first time screenwriter Alice Birch, Oldroyd transports Leskov’s novel to Victorian rural England. As the film opens, we see Katherine on her wedding day, forced into a loveless marriage to Alexander, a much older man (Paul Hilton) who has no interest to her. Confined to Alexander’s family estate near the seaside, Katherine is a virtual prisoner, as her tyrannical father-in-law (the terrific character actor Christopher Fairbank) keeps her isolated, when not chastising her for shirking her wifely duties, despite the fact his son is the one giving Katherine the brush off. Katherine thus spends her hours being tended to by the housemaid Anna (Naomi Ackie, doing a lot with a little) and sitting around basically trying to just stay awake until she can go to bed again.

That stifling routine changes when Katherine encounters Sebastian (the singer/songwriter Cosmo Jarvis, well cast), a new groomsman on the estate. The two begin a passionate affair, which sets into motion a Shakespearean series of sex, deceit, treachery, and murder that, we will come to see, give the picture its title, and the exact details of which are best left for the viewer to discover. Suffice to say that the only difference between Katherine and her titular namesake is that Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth actually feels guilt over her transgressions; Katherine, on the other hand, remains coldly detached throughout the proceedings, almost to the point of sociopathy.

Anna (Naomi Ackie) becomes suspicious of her new mistress.

You might wonder, then, why you would want to watch an entire picture about such a cold, unlikable character, but Pugh’s work here is incomparable, and the film is deserving of attention for her work alone. That such a young actress already has such a mature, steely command of the psychology of such a frightening, ruthless character is remarkable. And cinematographer Ari Wegner imbues the film with a stark, austere atmosphere that deftly underscores Oldroyd’s thematic points. The silent indoor shots of the estate — featuring Katherine often statue-like on the sofa, a long close up of a house cat, or Anna dressing Katherine in a tight corset in dust-moted sunlight — echo Katherine’s confinement and longing. And the few exterior shots of the wild and windy seaside provide sharp visual contrast to both the literal and metaphorical interior world.

The second film this summer to provide an unflinching look at 19th century British class and gender roles, Lady Macbeth might pair nicely with Roger Michell’s My Cousin Rachel on a double bill. Now we just need a follow up, with Pugh’s Katherine and Rachel Weisz’s Rachel as friends and co-conspirators; the screenplay possibilities there are already more interesting than any Marvel sequel. As Lady Macbeth herself says in Act 1, Scene 5, “Look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under it.”

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Lady Macbeth opens today at Bay Area theaters.

Carrie Kahn

Moving from the arthouse to the multiplex with grace, ease, and only the occasional eye roll.

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