Movie Curiosities: Lady Macbeth

It’s been so hard for me to keep up with the wide releases that I’ve been ignoring the arthouse releases for far too long. Time to check back in, with a film that had me captivated just from the trailer.

Sadly, Lady Macbeth merely invokes the name of Shakespeare’s iconic villainess and has nothing whatsoever to do with the playwright. It tells the story of Katherine (Florence Pugh), a young woman who was sold into marriage with an older and wealthier man (Alexander, played by Paul Hilton). Since the wedding, Katherine is treated as a mere object, tasked with doing nothing but her “marital duties” at the intense pressure of her new father-in-law (Boris, played to the hilt by Christopher Fairbank). But it turns out that birthing an heir won’t be easy when Katherine’s new husband won’t even touch her and he leaves the house for weeks at a time. So Katherine takes it upon herself to find a younger, poorer, more attractive man on the side (Sebastian, played by Cosmo Jarvis).

In any other story of the period, Katherine’s new squeeze would be someone pure of heart who could whisk our protagonist away from such a terrible life (ie: “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”). But this film is something different. Because the first time we meet Sebastian, he and his fellow laborers are gang-raping a woman — no less than Katherine’s own handmaiden (Anna, played by Naomi Ackie). And when asked about it, Sebastian refers to the victim as “a sow”.

To repeat: This man rapes a woman, calls her a pig, and shows no ounce of regret for it, safe in the knowledge that he’s off scot free because the victim is a black woman and has no rights. He’s a violent, ignorant, womanizing piece of shit; and Katherine knows as much… yet she still jumps his bones at the first opportunity.

It would be understandable to completely give up on the movie at this point. I almost did. But then I remembered the title, and the movie didn’t disappoint.

The movie and the character are both named in reference to a notorious Shakespeare villainess. A woman who rises above her station through boldfaced lies, shameless sex appeal, relentless ambition, ruthless manipulation, and cold-blooded murder. And here’s our main character sleeping around with a man so dumb, strong, immoral, and horny that he could be made to do just about anything by appealing to his ego and sex drive.

That said, Lady Mac of Shakespeare eventually changed her attitude, to the point where she tried to talk her husband out of any future murders, went mad with grief, and killed herself. Without getting too specific, this movie goes in a very different direction. Personally, if I had to pick a Shakespeare villain comparison — with regard to the character’s methods, morality, and character arc — I think Iago would probably be more accurate. It would have to be a seductive female portrayal of Iago, of course, but it’s not like that hasn’t been done. I digress.

Anyway, Katherine and Sebastian have a mutual interest in getting Alexander and Boris out of the way, if not killing them outright. But there’s still the question of just how far they want to go and how far they’ll succeed. Perhaps more importantly, there’s the question of how much Katherine truly loves her new beau, and what it would take for the both of them to deliver each other’s comeuppance.

It’s fascinating how the movie starts out as your typical two-dimensional story about a young woman struggling in a misogynist world, but then shifts into something else. Naturally, a lot of that has to do with our protagonist: Katherine starts out as a meek little nobody who patiently takes all the abuse she’s given, but it’s clear to us that there’s a lot going on behind her stoic demeanor. Thusly, it’s hard to tell precisely when she turns into a stone-cold psychopath or if she was one all along and nobody noticed.

Female-centric romantic costume dramas are so typically cut-and-dried that it’s subversive and deeply refreshing to see one with such a complicated morality. Yes, we want to see Alexander and his family suffer for being wealthy assholes who treat their women and servants without an ounce of love or sympathy. Yes, we want to see Sebastian suffer for being a rapist and a sleaze. But is it possible for both men to somehow grow past their sins and redeem themselves? Do they really deserve to die for their sins, or is there some other means of penance? Additionally, Alexander has every right to be upset because his wife cheated on him, which may excuse some of his actions. But if neither of them really wanted to be married in the first place, maybe the point is moot.

Then there’s Katherine herself. She’s indisputably a victim, having been sold into wedlock and subject to all manner of emotional abuse through every moment in what’s ostensibly her new home. Of course we want to see her come out on top, but at what cost? Much as she’s justified in wanting to rise above her station, kill those who enslaved her, and never be a slave again, does it justify going to the bloody and immoral extent that she does here?

Ultimately, the film leaves the question open-ended. Without going too far into spoilers, EVERYONE eventually gets caught up in the madness. Before we’re through, Katherine is all alone, having driven away enemies, allies, and innocents alike. So even if she does succeed, what good does it do her if she’s all alone in the end?

Oh, yeah. Did I not mention the innocents? Well, we’ve got a few side characters who wind up as hapless collateral damage. The most prominent case in point is poor Anna, the slave who dutifully attends Katherine and the other characters. While she is shown the occasional bit of dignity and compassion, she gets screwed over far more often. And she also goes mute halfway through, for some odd reason. Another example is Teddy, a young boy played by Anton Palmer. Both Teddy and Anna serve to humanize the main characters, helping to remind us that Katherine is indeed capable of sympathy and may still deserve some in turn. Which makes it all the more tragic — and rage-inducing — when some totally undeserved tragedy befalls them simply for getting in Katherine’s way, and she barely bats an eye over it.

Florence Pugh is an outstanding find. Her performance keeps our title character a compelling enigma — it’s an addictive riddle trying to find out what cards she’s keeping close to her chest, and the payoff is so satisfying when she finally plays her hand. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast doesn’t nearly match her caliber. Naomi Ackie does a solid job as Anna, but nobody else shows the charisma or the pathos to elevate their characters. Then again, because nobody else is on Pugh’s level, we have the silver lining of how this shows that none of the other characters are on Katherine’s level.

The visuals are wonderful, particularly with regard to the production design and the costume design. So many shots in this movie are impeccably detailed, with everything kept immovably in place. This can be used to illustrate the perfectly ordered drudgery of the life that Katherine was abducted into, or it can be used to show a dispassionate regard for some terrible thing happening in the scene. Either way, it’s deliciously creepy, even if it gives the impression that this 90-minute film is twice as long.

But alas, we have the handheld camera. I don’t think it’s any secret that excessive shaky-cam is a huge pet peeve of mine, and this movie sadly abused it. To be clear, I get why it was used: Changing the camera movement to show the less perfectly-ordered parts of Katherine’s life was a neat touch. And it’s not like shaky-cam was too annoying for long stretches at a time. That said, the still shots are so perfectly, frighteningly still that it wouldn’t have taken a whole lot of movement to make the point clear. There was more room for subtlety in the comparison, is what I’m saying.

On a final miscellaneous note, we do get some onscreen nudity from Katherine and Sebastian here. Not nearly as much as you might think, given the premise, but it’s there. And it’s enough.

Lady Macbeth is hard to sit through at times, and the morality is so loose that it’s in danger of falling apart. Yet I’m still giving it a recommendation, because at least it’s disturbing and provocative in all the right ways. Plus, after all the preachy feminist movies and simplistic period romantic costume dramas that I’ve seen, it’s a beautifully subversive change of pace to see one that’s so unapologetically dark and morally complex. Of course it’s a plus that the film looks hauntingly beautiful and our leading lady is magnetic, even if the plot stumbles in places and the supporting cast isn’t up to Pugh’s par.

I can’t guarantee that you’ll enjoy the film, but I’m quite certain that you’ll come away from it feeling sufficiently shocked in a satisfying way. Give it a watch and try turning it around in your head for a while.

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