Lady Macbeth: Revenge of the Housewife

**** (out of 4)

Of the repressed 19th-century women whose stories have appeared in theaters this past year (e.g. Emily Dickinson of A Quiet Passion, Rachel of My Cousin Rachel, Miss Farnsworth of The Beguiled), Katherine (Florence Pugh) of Lady Macbeth easily proves the most intense in her reaction to her condition. She’s been coerced into becoming a housewife to a womanizing drunkard (Paul Hilton) in an estate run by her domineering father-in-law (Christopher Fairbank) – and understandably, she isn’t too happy about any of that. So when her father-in-law slaps her during a confrontation over her inability to “produce heirs,” she feeds him poisonous mushrooms. When her husband discovers that she’s having an affair with a worker named Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), she beats her husband to death. And when a kid arrives at her estate claiming to be her deceased husband’s out-of-wedlock son, she smothers him with a pillow. Throughout it all, Katherine, contrary to what the title of her movie implies, never even remotely suggests that her actions unsettle her.

From the above description, you might think that Lady Macbeth is just an extra-dramatic rehash of movies like A Quiet Passion and The Beguiled. In fact, however, director William Oldroyd’s take on 19th-century women proves unique in several meaningful ways. Start with the attitude he adopts towards repression. A Quiet Passion and The Beguiled both established limits on the effects that repression could have on their protagonists: Emily Dickinson and Miss Farnsworth were unhappy, but they still felt emotional longing for the company of men. By contrast, the objectifying treatment that Katherine constantly receives ensures that she comes to view her own desires in equally objectifying terms – to the point that when she tells Sebastian that she “loves” him, she’s not talking about anything emotional but merely referring to how much she enjoys orgasms. Oldroyd’s version of repression doesn’t leave your spirit emotionally intact à la Miss Farnsworth; rather, it strips you of your humanity, to the point that you internalize the degrading views that others hold of you. While Terence Davies and Sofia Coppola tried to soften the bitterness of their characters’ plights, Oldroyd admirably refuses to flinch before the ills of the era he evokes.

Beyond its portrayal of repression, Lady Macbeth also stands out for its willingness to show why women facing the same prejudices don’t always get along. The women of A Quiet Passion, My Cousin Rachel, and The Beguiled were all white, and they usually had little trouble befriending one another. But in Macbeth, there’s a key subplot that involves the tense relationship between Katherine and Anna (Naomi Ackie), a black woman who serves as Katherine’s personal maid. Anna regularly endures just as much humiliation as Katherine: her fellow servants make a pastime out of publically beating her, and her master often makes her crawl from his presence on all fours. Yet instead of empathizing with Anna, Katherine regularly insults and bullies her as well; moreover, instead of keeping Katherine’s affair a secret, Anna tattles on her to the local priest. Here, Oldroyd suggests that race and class blind these two to the common suffering they’ve undergone on account of their gender – an idea with implications that still matter today.

Lady Macbeth is Oldroyd’s first feature film, a fact that’s hard to believe when you consider the remarkable elegance of his style. His camerawork, far from being flaunty, follows a basic yet meaningful pattern: when the camera is still, we’re watching Katherine the housewife, and when it’s shaking, we’re watching Katherine the rule-breaker.[1] This approach perfectly mirrors the two sides of Katherine’s character – and it also provides the setup for the movie’s most powerful visual contrast: Oldroyd shoots the death of Katherine’s husband in the shaky style, but he shoots the child’s death in the still one to show just how scarily accustomed to killing Katherine has become. Complementing all this exceptional cinematography, moreover, is Oldroyd’s adamant refusal to overindulge in Victorian décor, which ensures that the overall movie retains a simple, uncluttered appearance that befits the bare austerity of Katherine’s lifestyle.

In the end, however, Oldroyd’s elegant styling would all be meaningless if Katherine herself weren’t a fundamentally interesting character to watch – and Florence Pugh makes sure that’s anything but the case with her brilliant performance. Like Sally Hawkins in Maudie, Pugh succeeds in holding your interest with little more than a series of facial expressions. Every nod, smile, and frown she makes contains a sense of pent-up frustration and bitterness, and she makes the gradual increase in Katherine’s inability to restrain impulse feel completely natural. Perhaps the scariest testament to Pugh’s skill, however, is this: even as Katherine’s actions leave you feeling somewhat disgusted, Pugh makes you realize that if you were in Katherine’s place, you wouldn’t do any differently. Cynthia Nixon’s Dickinson left you moved, and Nicole Kidman’s Miss Farnsworth left you reflective. But just thinking about Pugh’s Katherine leaves you completely shaken.

***

Lady Macbeth (2016)

Starring: Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis, Paul Hilton, Christopher Fairbank, Naomi Ackie

Running Time: 89 minutes

MPAA Rating: R, “for some disturbing violence, strong sexuality/nudity, and language.”

Produced by: Fodhla Cronin O’Reilly

Written by: Alice Birch. Based on Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District.

Directed by: William Oldroyd

***

[1] For precision’s sake: aside from applying to the way the camera moves, this dichotomy also holds for shot type and editing. That is to say, the still camera is generally accompanied by long takes and wider shots, while the shaky camera is generally accompanied by faster cuts and more subjective (POVs, close-ups) shots.