“Lady Macbeth” is neither a Shakespearean re-working nor a bodice-and-bonnets drama in the vein of Merchant-Ivory fare. It features a striking lead performance, but it ultimately leaves the viewer unmoved, and possibly confounded.
Based on the 1865 novella “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk” by Nikolai Leskov, the sensibility is far more modern than the period it’s set in. The book was adapted into a 1934 Shostakovich opera that Stalin banned for being too subversive. Adapted by screenwriter Alice Birch and director William Oldroyd, both of whom have stage backgrounds, the film has an austere, theatrical quality, confined mostly to one location: a rather plain, airless house and its stables.
It’s not set in Russia, as the novel was, nor Scotland, as in Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” but rather in a remote, desolate corner of northern England that somehow manages to feel both expansively windswept and claustrophobic. The time frame is the mid-1860s.
Lead character Katherine (an incandescent Florence Pugh) has the ruthlessness and determination of the titular Shakespearean character: Stuck in an emotionally abusive marriage to Alexander (Paul Hilton from Andrea Arnold’s “Wuthering Heights”), an abrasive and dour landowner twice her age, and under the nasty watchful gaze of her geezer father-in-law Boris (Christopher Fairbank, “Wolf Hall”), Katherine is the downtrodden soul who instantly gains the viewer’s sympathy. But she is likely to lose it as she gains power over those who sought to keep her down, as well as others who simply get in her way.
Instructed not to leave the house by her curmudgeonly husband, Katherine spends her days corseted and bored, a stifled prisoner in a creaky old house. She is ignored by Alexander, who goes off on vague business, leaving her in the care of her maid, Anna (Naomi Ackie). The two women share few words. Soon, Katherine embarks on a torrid affair with lusty farmhand Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis). Her sexual obsession kicks her innate boldness into high gear. Carnal desire animates and drives her.
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At first, Katherine seems to be acting out of defiance against her oppressive role in life. But soon we see that Katherine will stop at nothing to get what she wants. Pugh was only 19 during shooting, but she carries the film beautifully. Her placid face subtly conveys determination, fascination, disdain and desire — sometimes all at once.
But for a film about an unstoppable force, fueled by illicit passion, “Lady Macbeth” is surprisingly dull and tedious. Part of that stems from the lack of chemistry between Pugh and Jarvis. Another problem is that, good as Pugh is — and she can be mesmerizing — her character feels jarringly modern, in sharp contrast to everyone else in the film. She seems more like a Millennial than a Victorian. (This brings to mind the trio of nuns in “The Little Hours” who are decidedly contemporary, but featuring a single anachronistic character works better in comedy.)
We meet Katherine at her wedding. It’s a dry and joyless affair, no doubt because she was purchased in a land deal. Immediately thereafter, she dully acts the part of the respectable, well-to-do rural wife. Then, in almost no time, she has tossed off all chafing restrictions, dallying with her boy-toy anywhere and everywhere. She very quickly moves on to far less defensible behavior and criminality. A character that originally felt like an unfortunate figure constrained by the era becomes a raging sociopath in a matter of days. This jarring transformation is hard to buy.
Also, Oldroyd shows us not a glimmer of her interior life, nor does he give us any sense of her existence prior to marrying Alexander. Has she suffered oppression prior to this? She speaks glancingly of happier times as a young girl, but then she’s unspeakably cruel to an innocent child. All this makes for an unknowable and unlikable homicidal heroine. Consequently, it’s increasingly hard to care what happens to her as the carnage mounts.
Katherine is unwavering in her quest to get what she wants, but unlike the Shakespearean queen, she shows no remorse. In fact, she seems to lack any emotions whatsoever apart from vengeance and lust.
At times the film flirts with being a commentary, if clouded, on issues of race and class. Anna, Katherine’s maid, is black, and while both are initially sisters in servitude, Katherine eventually treats her callously. She blames her own misdeeds on Anna and thinks nothing of it. Her lover Sebastian is also a person of color, and she is powerfully drawn to him physically. Her increasingly manipulative treatment of him raises questions of whether she sees him in a servile capacity, and ultimately disposable.
Katherine manipulates and hideously mistreats a young boy of mixed race, her husband’s ward. It’s one thing when a privileged, albeit oppressed, white woman turns her vengeance on her nasty white father-in-law; it’s quite another when her scheming brutality takes aim at innocent and darker-skinned people, especially a young child. It’s unclear whether these issues of race are deliberate on the part of the filmmakers, but Birch and Oldroyd show little willingness to delve too deeply into them.
The look of the low-budget period thriller is spare, with a muted soundtrack and a heroine who is almost spookily calm, throughout all the mayhem she creates, some of which seems to be fueled by boredom. Katherine grows less plausible, and her motivations seem murkier as her cruelty escalates. She stars out as an avenging angel and then devolves into almost campy serial-killer criminality, the mixed tones leaving us insufficiently moved. Ultimately, we feel like bystanders, rather than engaged viewers watching this unnecessarily mean-spirited tale.