Lady Macbeth is a re-imagining of Shakespeare’s 1606 play, Macbeth. The thematic interests of this version are quite contemporary to our current moment, despite being set in mid-19th century Britain and adapted from a Russian opera from the 1930s. The pedigree for Lady Macbeth is strong, and the movie is too, for the most part. You get what you think you might for a film called Lady Macbeth, and dog-gone if this mayhem doesn’t look beautiful.
Written by Alice Birch and directed by first time helmer William Oldroyd, Lady Macbeth is about a young woman named Katherine. It opens as she starts her miserable chattel marriage to a bad family. Francis Pugh plays Katherine, who was sold to her husband, Alexander (Paul Hilton), along with some land. Alexander has no interest in his new, much younger wife. He orders her around like an animal: “Stay indoors.” “Drop your clothes.” “Face the wall.” He’s abusive and brutal and distant for the short time they are together. She is instructed never to leave the house and never to interact with others on the property.
She spends her days donning fancy dresses, sitting on couches, wearing expressions long practiced by a woman of her status and stature.
Living with Katherine and her husband is her father in-law and numerous black servants who work in the home, in stables, and on the grounds. When Alexander leaves Katherine for a supposed business trip, she begins an affair with Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), a newly hired servant who works the farm.
Sebastian is a wild spirit, like Katherine, and neither belongs in the tamed lives they have been forced into. They’re affair is affectionate, and much to the pain of Katherine’s father-in-law, not secret. He threatens Katherine, reminding her that she is property and without power to carry on as she does.
In response, well, Katherine does what any Lady Macbeth-inspired character would do.
In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Lady Macbeth is cruel and filled with ambition. She wants power, for herself and her husband, and she aides her husband’s own ambitious pursuit of that power. Unable to effect the outcomes of that ambition for herself, she inspires her husband to commit the murders that will enable her advancement. Shakespeare’s Lady is brutal, but she is not without conscience. Before her life is taken, her mind succumbs to the weight of what she has done. Out, damned spot, she cries, unable to wash the blood from her hands.
For Katherine and Lady Macbeth, the motivation for violence comes from another source. Katherine wants not power but agency. Without choices, without family or friends, she simply exists as an adornment in a house. Her situation is brutal, and her eventual expression of self–her romantic, sexual and violent self–comes from a place that any modern audience member can understand. Her violence is not an innate characteristic, Lady Macbeth implies, but a reaction to the restrictive conditions in which she is confined.
Director Oldroyd evokes this reactive existence beautifully in the film’s early sequences, as Katherine takes possession of herself, then Sebastian, and finally something resembling freedom. Katherine’s stillness on the couch is replaced by evocative imagery of a smiling Katherine, standing outdoors, enjoying the wind. Eventually, Sebastian and Katherine are working together to protect their romance from outside threats, and everything snowballs from there. As the violence builds, Oldroyd’s direction darkens, and the natural beauty becomes a stark backdrop of the heightening violence.
This combination of visual beauty and horror is mesmerizing. But the stunning visuals paired with simple and slow character development, also creates a false sense of dullness that hides a truly harrowing conclusion. Audiences will interpret Katherine’s final actions differently, but I found what had been a moving story of violence and freedom eventually hollowed out by brutality in the end. Still, even amidst the bleak, despairing actions on screen, Florence Pugh’s practiced expressions dare us to judge her according to her deeds. And my verdict is not without sympathy.
–Christopher Zumski Finke