With the end of 2017 almost here, I’m trying to catch up on some of the movies I missed throughout the year. Next up: Lady Macbeth, the directorial and screenwriting debuts of William Oldroyd and Alice Birch respectively.
Lady Macbeth is not the story of a Scottish king’s rise to power as told from his wife’s point of view nor is it really an examination of an ambitious woman using men to obtain power. In short, it’s not quite the new spin on Shakespeare you might be expecting from the title. It’s actually adapted, loosely, from a Russian novella which was published in 1865. However, Lady Macbeth is very much told in the spirit of its namesake.
Set in rural England in the mid-1860s, Lady Macbeth depicts an all too common scenario for the era: a woman sold by her father to a newly wealthy family ends up trapped in a loveless, abusive marriage to a man nearly twice her age. Most women in such situations had no other choice than to suffer in silence. Katherine, as played by Florence Pugh, isn’t most women, though. She starts the story as an innocent girl but ends it a monster whose outwardly blank expression hides an endlessly calculating mind that simply won’t stand for 19th century puritanical and sexist bullshit anymore.
This initially comes off as Merchant Ivory meets Inglorious Bastards in that it’s a gorgeously photographed, slow-moving revisionist history revenge fantasy. However, Katherine’s survival mechanisms take a turn to the objectively immoral in the final third, and what had been a commentary on gender and sexual politics suddenly incorporates racial and class elements which further complicates things.
In her essay criticizing Hollywood’s new trope of highly capable, but entirely uncomplicated female leads, Katie Frates argued, “There will be no new impressive female leads for a very long time, so long as we’re too scared to portray women as humans with imperfections […] Scripts shouldn’t be neutered to pander to the perennially offended among us. Female leads deserve as much time to become something fantastic as male leads.”
Well, Katherine is exactly the imperfect, yet compelling female lead cinema needs more of. When she saves her maid from what might very well have grown into a gang rape by some of the estate’s slaves we think we know what kind of quiet, feminist hero she’s going to be. When she very shortly after that welcomes one of those slaves into her bedroom and repeatedly has loud, passionate sex with him, usually with her on top, we’re thrown for a loop and can’t quite predict where this is going or what to make of Katherine.
Yet you can’t stop watching because of Florence Pugh, in one of the breakout performances of the year. She imbues Katherine with such conviction and, when she’s allowed to show it, passion. The decisions Katherine makes, especially near the end, might lose you, but at least she gets to make them.
Lady Macbeth is currently available to rent through all of the usual channels. I’m told fans of The Beguiled and/or Phantom Thread will love Lady Macbeth, but I haven’t seen either of those yet, which is why The Beguiled is next up in my 2017 movie binge.