Film Review: Lady Macbeth

Rachel Weisz, move over. There’s another Victorian-era femme fatale, capable of killing, besides your Cousin Rachel to contend with: Florence Pugh, and she’s a knockout here.
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In 1865 in Northumberland, England, teenage Katherine (Florence Pugh) is trapped in a loveless marriage, having been sold by her father to wed Alexander (Paul Hilton), the gloomy, impotent son of a local colliery owner (Christopher Fairbank). Alexander’s ruthlessly harsh treatment of Katherine is a nightmare of extreme Victorian chauvinism, but the girl’s life changes when she meets and falls in love with James (Cosmo Jarvis), a compellingly sexy groomsman on the estate. Although she blooms into a luminous beauty as a result of her sudden sexual fulfillment, the film turns decidedly ugly, as her scheme to live happily with James become ever more lethal and thwarted.

For this striking directorial debut, theatre director William Oldroyd, working from an adaptation by Alice Birch of Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (which was also turned into a 1934 opera by Shostakovich), has produced one bizarre, deeply unsettling cinematic ride. A claustrophobic chamber piece, with wonderfully spare use of music making the silence all the more ominous, it focuses on Katherine’s arc from victim to oppressor and grips you from the outset with its stark, unleavened take on a world dominated by men to whom women are purely servile, whatever their class.

True provocateurs, Oldroyd and Birch have thrown race into this mix of caste and cruelty, and your appreciation of the film may largely rest on your feelings about this brazen choice. This viewer felt that it was gratuitous—rather a sop to the current zeitgeist of incessant color convo, piling on the oppression for a too-easy, question-raising addition of contemporary power to an already highly fraught narrative about the past. Many questions go unanswered here, for the filmmakers favor obfuscation and weighted suggestiveness over clarity, whether dramatic or historical. Slavery was abolished by the British Empire in 1833, but the blacks in this movie appear to be still wearing that yoke, which, one supposes, is some kind of  “color-blind” statement about the benighted state of all the lower classes, besides women themselves. The deck, I feel, is unreasonably stacked, and it becomes nigh-unbearable, even downright offensive, with the brutally protracted scene of the murder of an adorable little boy of color. As with Hitchcock’s gruesomely graphic moment in Torn Curtain, we get that murder is a truly grisly, not easy affair that can take quite an agonizingly long while, but Oldroyd overplays his hand here.

However, there’s no gainsaying his skill as a director, both atmospherically—with Ari Wegner’s beautiful cinematography sometimes invoking Ingres—and with his cast. Nineteen-year-old Pugh is uncannily good, going through the transformation from baby-faced child bride to an enigmatic, steely and erotic determination worthy of Barbara Stanwyck, Mary Astor or Jessica Lange as the very best of the film noir dames when they did their devastating stuff in Double Indemnity, The Maltese Falcon and The Postman Always Rings Twice, respectively. Katherine is basically a precursor of those lethal ladies, and Pugh’s subtle yet molten underplaying is key here. James is largely presented as a Dark Enigma—as is Anna (Naomi Ackie), another inscrutable servile presence in Katherine’s house—which is another fatuous flaw of the film. (There’s a weird and creepy gang-rape scene involving Ackie, trussed up and bagged like a pig to slaughter, which also raises eyebrows in this post-12 Years a Slave era.) Jarvis, however, has enough innate dignity and arresting drive to bring some unscripted humanity, besides being celestially handsome enough to convince you of any overweening passion he inspires.

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