Lady Macbeth spans the chasm of 19th Century and present-day patriarchal oppression in the bleak cold of the absolute north of England. Get ready to shiver. This low-budget Victorian thriller is colder than that English classroom you had first thing on a Monday in Year 7.
Adapted by Alice Birch from Nikolai Leskov’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District – an 1865 novel about the subservient role of women – and directed by William Oldroyd, Lady Macbeth perforates the repressive, sexless and monotone period in which it’s set with teenage comedy and so it goes death. Protagonist Katherine (Florence Pugh) has been forced into a pretty shit situation: married-off to a sexless man with a rich father. But Pugh brings the laughter right away with an intuitive, if adolescent, female inquisitiveness that these stale men can’t take. Katherine is pleasingly reactive to the relentless and increasingly threatening instructions of her husband Alexander (Paul Hilton) and father-in-law Boris (Christopher Fairbank): she’s laughing at men. Absurd, incapable men.
And they are incapable: Alexander’s wedding night power-play is reminiscent of Ralph Ineson’s William in 2015’s The Witch. But whereas William makes his daughter remove his clothes for him, Alexander makes Katherine strip in front of him before getting into bed, turning the light off and going to sleep, leaving her to stand in the middle of the dark, cold room. But this doesn’t demonstrate Alexander’s prowess or stature. It betrays his weakness: he doesn’t not fuck her to fuck with her, he doesn’t fuck her because he can’t. Impotent or scared, their only sexual encounter in the film’s entirety features him bashing one off while she stands naked, facing a wall.
However, Alexander is a victim, too. The villain? A trickle-down effect of patriarchal dominance and toxic-masculinity. Boris is a bully who ‘bought’ Katherine for his inadequate son, ‘along with a field that’s not fit to graze a cow in.’ Boris wants and heir that isn’t such a disappointment, and he demands that Katherine do her ‘duty as a wife’ by delivering him one.
However, with both Alexander (and Boris) away on business for much of the film, no [legitimate] heir-doing gets done. Katherine is left semi-free to rule the estate. Her only obstacle? The front door. But you can’t rule over an empty house, and the presence of new farmhand Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis) doesn’t keep her indoors because, you know, that ‘bitch gets restless if she’s tied up too long.’ Furthermore, being wealthy, Katherine’s as much his superior as Boris, a wealthy man, is hers.
Katherine finds in Sebastian a way to own and embrace her sexuality because Sebastian is the opposite of everything her husband represents: she can fuck him, and she can also fuck him up. That Sebastian knows this and is frightened of it is clearly evident in Jarvis’ performance. Katherine even tells Sebastian, whilst berating him and his mates for committing what is clearly an act of sexual assault against her maid Anna (Naomi Ackie), to face the wall. Conversely, rather than outwardly receive our disdain for the way he treated Anna, Sebastian receives our poor-boy-done-good sympathy [insert appropriate eye role here].
The casting of black and mixed-race actors disrupts the authority of the white ruling class, though without it being addressed in the film. Anna is an observant yet passive aggressive maid. But Golda Rosheuvel as Agnes, a middle-aged black woman of some wealth and stature who arrives out of the blue with a surprise that threatens to supplant Katherine’s self-made throne, provides the upheaval necessary to take Katherine’s remorselessness to a whole new level.
Pugh, then, pays more than suitable homage to the film’s badass namesake, but Katherine is less tragic than Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth. In fact, she’s more like Tom Ripley, evolving from the out of place teenager, drunk on somebody else’s wine, into a meticulously self-preserving adult who doesn’t think twice about committing murder in the name of self-preservation. Anna is to Katherine what Gwyneth Paltrow’s Marge Sherwood is to Tom Ripley: a conscience slowly manipulated into silence until they are literally carried away.
I felt guilty as I left the cinema. I was paranoid. I unlocked my bike but didn’t actually ride it, confused as I was in what, it seemed, was my role in what I had just witnessed. But this weird sense of being complicit didn’t come from my being on Katherine’s side despite her crimes; I felt it because the message of a novel written in 1865 is still painfully, exhaustingly and absurdly relevant.
Movie Review by Harry Gallon
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