Based on the novel Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District by Nikolai Leskov, this film is a British drama directed by William Oldroyd with an adapted screenplay by Alice Birch. It stars Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis, Paul Hilton, Naomi Ackie and Christopher Fairbank. In Victorian England in 1865, somewhere in North (judging by their accents), Katherine Lester (Pugh) is imprisoned in a loveless marriage to a man who looks to be three times her age. Loveless marriages aside, she begins a love affair with a man her own age. This is a tale of love, sex and murder. With Macbeth making up half of the title, what could possibly go wrong?
This film predates early feminism and women rights by just over thirty years. Katherine Lester (Florence Pugh) is the child wife of a rich, yet abusive landowner in the English countryside. When he goes away on business to London, she sees this as her chance to take some of her freedom back and starts an affair with a stable boy. Unwilling to be free of her freedom, she embarks on a thread of radical, yet in my opinion, understandable and passable actions (for the most part). Though, the more we watch her character in the film, the more we see her evolve from a victim of society’s sexism to a miscreant who will do anything to get her own way.
Though, that’s as far as that comparison goes, because Edna Pontellier doesn’t turn into a ruthless serial killer. Lady Macbeth is a character study of one with a selective conscience, one who is self-serving and one without morality. Her radical lack of morality gets to a point that even her staff are scared of her. It’s impossible to like this character, yet I understand why she did the things she did, even if I don’t necessarily agree with them. She is enjoying an independent life without her husband, at everyone else’s expense, which soon becomes clear when she kills her father in-law Boris (Fairbank). That said, I won’t deny that I would have done the same. Asshole.
For this film to have a prominent musical score would be a mistake. Luckily, it has little music. And alike to many films of the mid-twentieth century, dead silent scenes are scary due to the lack of background sound. No music adds more to the eeriness of an already shudder-worthy film. It’s shot in a sombre style with eye-catching cinematography. The oppressive themes are emphasised by the sound camera work. It continuously shows many scenes from exactly the same perspectives, like the servant Anna entering the bedroom in the same fashion everyday. Watching it has the ability to thrust audiences into a sort of groundhog day.
Whilst Lady Macbeth is still a film about gender roles (via the Male Gaze), it’s also about class. And how in these times, class often defined ones gender and/or race. White men ruled whilst women, along with blacks and other ethnic groups were degraded to second class citizens. As a woman, Katherine is demoted to a lower breed of human by the ruling class (men). And she uses her position of power to propagate her servants into being lower, to make herself feel good. Shamelessly, she uses the servants for her own purposes and amusement, and sends them to their fates without a care in the world. Though, how she goes about it is an adventure within itself.
My eyes were glued to the screen from beginning to end. The absence of score is a stroke of gold. All the acting performances were excellent and Florence Pugh stole the whole show. And its northern setting was reminiscent of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights with Lester (Kathy) and Sebastian (Heathcliff) romping through the northern countryside. There’s also the portrayal of the gentry and the entitlement that occurred between the classes. It’s all very Charles Dickens/Bronte-esque. Though, the way the story unfolded was not so predictable as your typical period pieces, like the works of Dickens, Austen or Bronte, and the cinema treatment is necessary.
With excellent performances and cinematography that subtly kills, it shows you that class wins, even if those who have it are not the best peope. This is not pretty viewing. It’s not a pleasant one. But it is necessary viewing and it’s in my top five films of 2017… so far. If you can catch this at the cinema, do it. It won’t be a wasted trip, that’s for sure.