Lady Macbeth Review

Within minutes, “Lady Macbeth” sets a familiar period romance stage: a very young woman in 19th century rural England is sold into marriage to a cold fish husband and an even nastier father-in-law and in her isolation begins an affair with the stable groom on the family estate. We immediately sympathize with Katherine (Florence Pugh) and her desire to claim some free will from the clutches of a stifling patriarchy – and then the film starts earning its Shakespearean title.

Director William Oldroyd’s meticulous period mies en scene and portrait-like framing of Katherine’s life and her ill-advised romance suddenly begins to unravel at the edges with some pivotal choices that create a jarring incongruity of tones. In an assured feature film debut, Oldroyd chilling tries to maintain the film’s quiet, poise and elegance amidst the story’s growing chaos and darkness.

Adapted from Nikolai Leskov’s “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk,” a novella released during the film’s time period, screenwriter Alice Birch’s choice to tell this story in England emphasizes its Shakespearean qualities and makes it more palatable for Western audiences. The film earns its lofty title by depicting Katherine’s slowly rising ambition as she works desperately to maintain their illicit romance with Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis) and the freedom that accompanies it.

Like any story aspiring to Shakespearean levels, “Lady Macbeth” has somewhat of a three-act structure, only the “acts” are tied loosely together by Katherine’s character arc – the conflicts and problems established early on do not swell in the way traditional stories do due to Katherine’s decisive actions that change her circumstances. For a 20-year-old actress, Pugh gets a rare opportunity to establish dramatic prowess and comes off remarkably beyond her years. She embodies the clash of poise and passion Oldroyd aims for, often staying composed in body and voice while the story goes off the rails.

The film doesn’t sell us on its central romance, but the romance elements do reveal themselves to be ancillary to the film’s actual genre – crime drama. Little about Katherine and Sebastian’s relationship pulls us deeply into their situation and makes us feel more deeply about the choices they must make, but the film does sell us on their desperation and why they might feel as though they must do anything for each other. What at the onset we’re lead to believe is a film about doing “anything for love” turns out to be more about autonomy and liberation.

Class therefore plays a big part of the movie, and more specifically the power dynamics that come with it. For the first several minutes, Katherine has no power. She appears to have no more right to do as she pleases than the servants on the estate, including her handmaiden, Anna (Naomi Ackie), who is black. When we see Katherine and Anna in a scene together, however, we watch Katherine exert her power as lady of the house and watch Anna struggle to take any action of her own volition, a privilege that her position does not allow her – and one Katherine takes for granted.

These different class and power dynamics give Oldroyd an opportunity in the camera’s framing. Cleverly, when a character moves out of the frame, rather than cutting to a new angle, he will maintain the existing shot and allow the character to break the frame. In a few key spots, this accentuates the class distinctions and highlights their critical role in how the story unfolds.

Whereas Shakespeare was into doling out extreme consequences for extreme action, “Lady Macbeth” takes a different route with resolving the story’s ever-mounting darkness that has its own chilling effect. It makes “Lady Macbeth” into a decisively more modern film in that it’s more interested in choices than morals. The story’s roots in the hallmarks of classic literature, however, do keep the plot rather simple and put more onus on Oldroyd to create something engaging and new out of familiar ideas. He does that to enough of an extent that “Lady Macbeth” deserves notice.


4/5 Stars


Lady Macbeth
Directed by William Oldroyd
Written by Alice Berch, Nikolai Leskov (book “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk”)
Starring: Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis, Paul Hilton

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