Quite a blend of Shakespearean themes with a hint of declaring independence.
Lady Macbeth is set in mid-19th century England, and centers around Catherine, a young woman who is purchased by an old and wealthy mine owner, Boris, and is forced to marry his son, Alexander. The marriage is passionless, and Catherine suffers emotional and occasionally physical abuse at the hands of Alexander, who forces her every night to take off her nightdress and stand in the corner while he masturbates to her naked body. Charming, isn’t he?
When Alexander goes on an unspecified trip, Catherine is left alone in the house with the maid, Anna, and is paid frequent visits by Boris, who warns Catherine never to leave the house. One day, Catherine goes outside the house, sees the house servants harassing Anna, and scolds the ringleader, Sebastian. That night, Sebastian tries to rape Catherine, and though she resists at first, she submits to him and begins a passionate affair with him. As a result, Catherine starts acting differently with the people around her, and even manages to poison Boris—an act only Anna knows about. When her husband finally returns home and discovers the affair, she murders him, and her path to gaining power truly begins.
This film is eerie and creepy in nearly every shot, and that can be attributed not only to the filmmaking itself, but also to Florence Pugh in the lead role. We are not told much about Catherine’s past life, aside from the fact that she was sold into marriage, and Pugh does a fascinating job conveying that there may be more to her character than we can imagine. She does this primarily through facial expressions — including an intimidating thousand-yard-stare and several shots of her staring uncomfortably into the camera, which is usually a thousand-yard stare. Her performance is proof that less is more when it comes to creating an interesting character.
Although Lady Macbeth is not an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth as the title would suggest (it’s loosely based on a novel by Russian author Nikolai Leskov), it does share similarities, mainly the theme of power and corruption. In Macbeth, Lady Macbeth goes to great lengths to see that her husband obtains the title of King, including plotting the murders of those standing in the way. Catherine in Lady Macbeth is looking more for sexual freedom at first, and achieves it, but keeping her husband’s murder a secret from the others forces her to go to extreme lengths. As the film progresses, it becomes clear that there is no end to her ruthlessness.
This is the feature-length debut of William Oldroyd, who previously directed shorts. He manages to keep the film mysterious and uneasy throughout its 90-minute runtime, and gets some truly gorgeous shots. Interestingly, the film sets up the audience to feel empathy for Catherine in the beginning, but tests those feelings when her cruel intentions emerge. The last third of the movie introduces a surprise character that has a connection to her husband. His fate is the one step too far that Catherine takes to securing control over her own life, and even Anna, who is so horrified by her actions that she can’t even speak, has a difficult time seeing the humanity that Catherine had previously displayed. Audiences might have that same reaction as well.
Lady Macbeth is a captivating thriller that is an impressive feature debut for the director. The first half is hard to watch at times due to the abuse that Catherine is subject to, but the film gains an extra edge once she starts rebelling. Florence Pugh gives an incredibly mysterious performance that adds to the unsettling nature of the story, and contributes to its effectiveness. It may not be an easy watch, but, as I quote Macbeth himself, “Fair is foul, and foul is fair.”
Lady Macbeth will be released in NY theaters on July 14th.