31 Days, 31 Movies 12/6: Lady Macbeth
This movie is strange. I guess more accurately, the 1865 novel Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District by Nikolai Leskov is strange. But I must admit I’m not familiar with that novel. Lady Macbeth, the 2017 English film by William Oldroyd is about Katherine, the miserable wife of Alexander Lester. She is essentially imprisoned by her awful impotent husband and his discount Ebenezer Scrooge of a father. The film starts with both the men going on business trips at the same time and leaving Katherine in the manor alone—with the instructions to not go outside. About 10 minutes in, after setting up the premise of the film is when all the normalness of this film ceases. I say normal but by this point we have already heard an old men violently masturbate off camera for what feels like 5 minutes straight but could have only possibly been about 30 seconds. From this point on this quaint film that I thought was about a woman finding liberation in a forbidden affair with a farm hand starts to rack up an unnerving body count at odds with the sleepy setting of the English countryside.
Lady Macbeth is far from a perfect movie but if anyone should emerge unscathed from it, it is Florence Pugh who plays the main character Katherine. I recognized Pugh from having a small role on Marcella last year but most viewers will be unfamiliar with the young actresses work. In Lady Macbeth however she proves with ease that she is up to the task of leading a film. Pugh squeezes every bit of pathos out of this quiet and minimalist role and is far and away the brightest part of this film. The supporting cast is given even less to do than Pugh but Naomi Ackie who plays Anna, the Lester family house servant, gives a solid performance. Only Cosmo Jarvis, playing Sebastian, the most confusing character in the film, delivers a lackluster performance and Jarvis’s performance does detract from the love story of Lady Macbeth. William Oldroyd in his first feature length film shoots with a minimalist style that suits the film well; some of the most beautiful shots in Lady Macbeth are of Katherine sitting still in the cold setting of the Lester manor. Oldroyd shoots more like a painter than someone working with film, letting every shot sit with the audience and soak up every inch of the screen.
It is no small problem the way the relationship between Katherine and Sebastian starts. Katherine first sees Sebastian when he and a group of men are sexually assaulting Anna and then later he attempts to assault Katherine forcing his way into her room. She responds by returning a forced kiss and eventually having sex with him and the previous events are never mentioned again. The only reason the iffy sexual politics in the film don’t immediately write it off for me is because I come to interpret the end of the film as the audience is meant to question whether or not Katherine was planning all of the events from the beginning and that she chose Sebastian as a tool to free herself from her abusive husband but the ambiguity still leaves me uneasy. And if her intentions were to eventually punish him, and he does suffer as bad a fate as all the other men that have crossed Katherine’s path by the end of the film.
Narratively Lady Macbeth feels like it’s missing a few parts. Some that could have been used to more elaborate on the questionable depiction of sex and consent in the film; others that could have served to further the plot. It’s the first movie I’ve seen in a while that I wanted to be longer. At 90-minute runtime it is a good length for a character drama but with the pace that Oldroyd is moving in the film each scene eats up a lot of runtime allowing for less development of the story than I would like. Watching Katherine take control of her life at the onset of the movie is empowering and by the end being led to question whether she has been the villain the whole time is a classic character transformation that Lady Macbeth squanders by jogging through important sections of the film. Lady Macbeth is one of English literature’s most complex characters there are stagings of Macbeth where she is ultimately the villain coercing and manipulating her husband into committing all these brutal moments. This film where’s its influence on its sleeve and watching Katherine go from victim to villainess is fascinating but Katherine’s transformation throughout the film is not explored near in depth enough to make for as compelling a transformation as we’ve seen in similar stories.
Lady Macbeth has a compelling and captivating lead character who Florence Pugh portrays masterfully and her performance and Oldroyd’s contemplative style behind the camera paints over some of the films short comings. It is an ambitious story that fails to achieve the full extent of it’s lofty narrative goal but still comes out the other side with a beautifully shot film that transforms from a tale of female empowerment and survival in the face of suffering to a violent and disturbing look at moral ambiguity.