On Screen: A New Lady Macbeth

Directed by William Oldroyd and written by Alice Birch, the film explores the treachery of dominance and oppression, concepts that are laced into each character.

click to enlarge Florence Pugh as Lady Macbeth - Photo: Courtesy of Roadside Attractions
Photo: Courtesy of Roadside Attractions
Florence Pugh as Lady Macbeth

Directed by William Oldroyd and written by Alice Birch, Lady Macbeth is adapted not from Shakespeare but rather Nicolai Leskov’s 19th-century Russian novel Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District and transplanted to Northern England in 1865It is a film that explores the treachery of dominance and oppression, concepts that are laced into each character.

The film opens to Katherine (Florence Pugh), a woman on the brink of being sold into marriage, standing at an altar cloaked in an opaque veil. The lighting is creamy and bright. She is the only subject in the scene, amplifying the fact that in the Victorian era, marriage was often a business deal. The wife, here, is a commodity bartered for like cattle and sold with a piece of land. Pugh’s ability to drive a scene through her gaze — transfixed and passively defiant — presents itself with vigor. Her chin is pointed downward, a symbol of submission, while her gaze peeks upward, a foretelling of rebellion. 

The next scene is a stark contrast: Dim lighting blankets their bedroom where her husband, Alexander (Paul Hilton), asks her to strip off her clothing, stand, and face the opposite direction. The viewer can hear him slide into their marriage bed. 

Again, she is presented as a possession to be had. There is no intimacy between the spouses but rather a power struggle where Katherine must be the perfect wife, an angel in the house and an emblem of chastity. In the beginning, the audience still has sympathy for the young woman. As the film’s narrative unfurls into an affair she has with a workman on the estate, Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), and three subsequent ghastly murders committed in her attempt to be with him, sympathy begins to lose its grip. 

Silence stretches between scenes. The soundscape in minimal and wields nature as a source of friction. Though she is told it’s not healthy for a lady to go outside, the viewer follows Katherine through barren landscape as her husband and father-in-law are out of town. The protagonist seems to transform into the brashness of rural England. The viewer sees her laced into a corset, which serves as a symbol of the bind she wants to escape from. But Sebastian feels more like an avenue of release than love. 

“Do you love me?” she asks as they sit in the fresh air that she has been told not to explore. “Of course,” he replies. “Do you adore me?” Her hands cups his chin. “Of course,” he again replies as the wind amplifies around them. 

She asks another question: “Could you not do without me?” Here, she is met with uncomfortable quiet. He kisses her nose and the viewer is left feeling tied in fabrics of power rather than love. The viewer sees flashes of their romance. Between scenes of sudden, fervent passion are moments steeped in mundanity. Katherine pours tea dressed in a large, blue hoop skirt. She sits on a small sofa, the shot meticulously centered, wearing the broad garment and staring blankly ahead. The film returns to that image — each time it does, seemingly separating it into acts — and the heroine’s tightly structured image seems to become more unraveled with each revisit. By the end, strands of hair can be seen out of place. 

Pugh is a force that demands attention even in her character’s passive moments. Only 19 at the time of filming, she dominates the screen with restrained chaos. Katherine, from the start, has a fascination with manipulation and control. She feeds off the other characters, drawing energy both from her own repression and privilege as a white upper-class woman. A black housemaid, Anna, is portrayed by Naomi Ackie with haunting subtlety. A selective mute, her silence is explored through forced utterances of “yes, ma'am” and “no, ma'am.” The viewer sees Anna silently scream or channel her frustration into pounding dough when blood is spilled by Katherine, to whom she must answer. 

Jarvis’ character is of mixed race, while her late husband’s ward and illegitimate child is as well, only appearing after his father’s death. Through the film’s exploration of dualities of power as it is related to class and race, it becomes a bleak reflection of society’s morality. Though oppressed as a woman, Katherine is unaware that her use of power on those also oppressed by the system is both startling and telling of the time. 

The Victorian era is largely remembered today as being cluttered with material items, but Lady Macbeth is scraped thin of them. It relies on the hollow spaces both in its setting and in the characters that inhabit it. 

The viewer is left unsettled. Humanity is dismantled and replaced with cold desire. Katherine is hungry and reaching, wine dribbling down her chin. She is choked by feminine expectations while simultaneously smothering those she can with domination. 

Lady Macbeth ends with little sympathy for its main protagonist, because of the blood she spills. But that’s precisely the point. The societal chains that bind and repress the characters, including Katherine, are never completely shed. They leave each one grasping for some sense of being. (Opens Friday at Esquire Theatre) (R) Grade: B+