by Joanna van der Veen
Lady Macbeth (2016) is a strange and captivating film: a hybrid that could be variously categorised as gothic period drama, cold-blooded thriller or noir-tinged romance.
It centres on Katherine (mesmerising newcomer Florence Pugh), a young woman “sold” by her parents and consequently stuck in both a loveless marriage and an austere, suffocating country house. Bored, frustrated and lonely, she rebels by embroiling herself in a passionate affair with Sebastian, a cocky groomsman (singer-songwriter Cosmo Jarvis) that she finds working on her husband’s estate. However, as we all know, the path of true love (or, in this case, lustful determination masquerading as true love) never does run smooth – and the young couple end up being caught in a bloody, ruthless battle to get what they want.
The film is the feature debut of opera and theatre director William Oldroyd, and is based not on Shakespeare’s Scottish play but on an 1865 novella by Nikolai Leskov. Nonetheless, it’s almost impossible to refrain from comparisons between Katherine and Shakespeare’s leading lady. Though driven by different motivations – it’s much easier to understand Katherine’s quest for liberation than it is to sympathise with her counterpart’s need for power – they’re both commanding women, desperate for self-preservation and, ultimately, chillingly cold-blooded and willing to stop at nothing to get what they want.
Pugh is a revelation in the role, and arguably carries the film, elevating it from an impressive debut to a truly admirable piece of filmmaking. She manages to evoke sympathy, awe and disgust (sometimes individually, often all at once), and even invokes a few giggles. As she sits at the breakfast table, fully cognizant that a horrific scene is unfolding next door, she forces her handmaid Anna (Naomi Ackie) to join her: “I hate to eat alone”. The enforced civility of the original scene is comical, but a veritable chorus of laughter could be heard when the set-piece was returned to, this time with only a cat –and a particularly mangy, unendearing cat at that – seated at the table.
Little, thoughtful details like this are where the film truly excels. The costumes, supporting cast (Ackie in particular) and undeniably beautiful and meticulously well-executed cinematography add depth and atmosphere. However, sometimes it feels as if this is at the expense of detail in more crucial aspects of the film – for example, the relationship between Katherine and Sebastian seems strangely lacking in depth, leading to a loss of emotional investment in their fates.
Indeed, the film feels slightly out of balance throughout. It has a somewhat slow, meandering start – very little dialogue, lots of subtext and much rustling of period clothing – that does almost too good a job of drawing the audience into Katherine’s stultified existence. It errs on the wrong side of the balance between scene-setting and storytelling; even when Sebastian forces himself into Katherine’s room and they end up giving the marital bed some never-seen-before action, it’s oddly flat.
Where the film really comes into its own is when the vicious and bloody action gets underway. Oldroyd masterfully toys with his viewers, shifting abruptly from violence to stillness, then swiftly back to violence again. This tense toing and froing weaves a gripping story, one which could be watched for entertainment value alone.
Nonetheless, it feels as if not looking below the surface may be doing Lady Macbeth an injustice. The tale touches on many topical and controversial issues: from female desire and historic gender roles to the consequences of emotional and physical abuse. The film is so morally ambiguous that it’s difficult to settle on a definitive interpretation – but this is to its credit rather than a criticism. In early reviews, much has also been made of the film’s subtle depiction of race (Sebastian and Anna are both black), and as a result it has drawn inevitable comparisons with Amma
Asante’s Belle (2013) and Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights (2011) as one of very few films to date that have touched on the question of race in the British gentry. This is yet another of the winding paths one wanders down when reflecting on Lady Macbeth’s rich tapestry – but it is one that is never explicitly addressed by the film’s narrative.
In summary, Lady Macbeth is a whirlwind of ideas. From murder, sex and intrigue to ponderous views of the British moors; from oppressed characters fighting for liberation to the cruel indifference of a strictly hierarchical society. And – of course – a truly hideous and yet oddly unforgettable feline.
Joanna van der Veen (London, UK – 1990) Joanna splits her time between freelance translation, writing and working for a local urban regeneration project. She loves films that err a little bit on the strange side, and previously worked for a multi-language radio station dedicated to independent cinema, attending a whirlwind of film festivals from London to Mar del Plata.