Synopsis – In 19th-century rural England, a young bride who has been sold into marriage discovers an unstoppable desire within herself as she enters into an affair with a worker on her estate – Lady Macbeth
Director – William Oldroyd
Released – 2016
For fans of – The Wind, Black Narcissus, The Nightingale
This might come as a disappointment to some, but, Lady Macbeth, despite its title, has very little in common with Shakespeare’s Macbeth, it is, in fact, based on Nikolai Leskov’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, with the action transferred from Russia to the northeast of England in the 1860s.
Much more minimalistic than many many period dramas set around the same time, Lady Macbeth boasts very few set pieces and keeps the music to a minimum, it’s left up to the actor and aesthetics to give the movie its feel and drive the plot along. This austere touch also spills over into the costume design and the set design, both of which hint at declining wealth, yet class and gender structures are still firmly in place.
It’s this choice to make the movie more grounded in its representation of persons living in the north of England in the 19th century that makes the film feel realistic and raises the tension greatly and reflects the tone of the movie as it grows ever darker as the story progresses and Kathrine (Pugh) transforms from victim to perpetrator.
It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that Lady Macbeth is about gender just as much as class. The main character, Katherine is a young woman married off by her family along with some land. She is seen as a lower form of human life by her husband, purely there to make him look good and fulfil his needs, though in tern she considers the servants of the house to be a lower form of human life to herself, taking out her frustrations on them and willing to let them suffer when it suits her. The film makes it perfectly clear that class/gender structures are very at work here and although there might be some fraternization between them, those higher on the scale don’t tend to care at all about the fates of those lower down.
The cinematography might make this film atmospheric and the gender/class dynamics make the film interesting, but it’s the central performance by Florence Pugh that makes this a memorable watch. These days we all know how skilled an actor she can be, but in 2016 she was just a fresh-faced newcomer, but you wouldn’t know it from this performance, she is utterly brilliant and I wouldn’t be surprised if this was the film that leads to her getting her breakout role in Midsommar.
The fact that this was director William Oldroyd’s debut feature film is hard to believe given how controlled and beautiful it turned out. Lady Macbeth is a fine movie filled with great themes, beautiful cinematography and a mesmerizing central performance by Pugh. I’ll be thinking about this movie for a long time to come.