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An adaptation of Nikolai Leskov's Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District that ferments with disquieting fury and fearsome dreariness of a scorned woman ensnared in a hellish ménage.
Strong female refusing to kowtow to the patriarchy.
With a menacing 1860s England backdrop, "Lady Macbeth" succeeds around Florence Pugh's breakout performance and her character's need for empowerment that leads to a shocking conclusion in this psychological thriller.
Adapted from a 19th century Russian novel and not from Shakespeare (but definitely with overtones from that tragedy), this is really a showcase for Florence Pugh who, at age 20, dominates the proceedings. Pugh plays a young woman who marries (or is purchased) into a wealthy family in the north of England in the 1860s - she clearly has a wilful streak but her husband disdains her and seeks to keep her locked up inside (when she would rather run free on the moors). Her stern father-in-law runs the house and both servants and family are treated with contempt. When these men are called away, Katherine (Pugh) asserts herself, including beginning a passionate affair with a groomsman (Cosmo Jarvis). As gossip begins to spread, Katherine takes increasingly decisive actions to preserve the illicit relationship. As directed by William Oldroyd (in his first feature), this is a rather stately affair, with beautiful period setting and furnishing - but punctuated with moments of passion and violence (disturbingly so). At first, Katherine appears to be a representation of the empowered woman - refusing to yield to the heavy-handed authority of the patriarchy - but as the film progresses and her actions become more ruthless, it is harder to sympathise with her. Is there a political point being made here? It is hard to know. (Inter-racial relationships are also highlighted - so both race and gender are under the microscope). Regardless of its sociological themes, the film is absorbing, a bit Shakespearean, not too long, and Florence Pugh is great.
Please note, this movie is not some sort of treatment of Shakespeare's play or character. It is, really, just a short cut way of letting a potential viewer know they are about to encounter a cold, calculating woman who will literally stop at nothing to get what she desires.
We first meet Katherine as she is getting married in one of those cold, stone English churches. We find out quickly that she has essentially been "sold" to her new husband, a gruff, grubby farmer/landowner in what I'd guess is Northern England in the 19th century. They don't know each other and they have no relationship. And he's not exactly a doting husband. He tells his new bride (who looks to be in her teens...the actress, Florence Pugh, was 19 at the time of filming) that she should confine herself to the house. Her new father-in-law, and even rougher and crustier version of the husband, tells her the same. He admonished her for not producing an heir...something that will be tough, since her new husband does not sleep with her. He clearly has some hang-ups, and his new wife is of no real interest to him, so she pretty much spends her days just sitting around, waiting to eat her next meal and later, to go to bed. She has no friends, but an odd sort of relationship develops with her maid.
Anyway, early in the film, while her husband and father-in-law are out...she begins to wander the land around the farm. And sure enough, her husband was right to fear her wandering, because she meets a rude, coarse but sexy farmhand, and begins a torrid affair with him. She enjoys herself quite thoroughly, and apparently doesn't care who knows it. They make loud, unmistakable noises in the house. The community begins to get an idea of what she's up to. (There's an amusing scene where the town minister pays her a visit for tea, encouraging her to spend less time outdoors, and more at church. Apparently the fresh air in this part of the world turns women into animals!!) So, Katherine begins to encounter obstacles to her being with her man.
The movie delights in showing us the extreme tactics she takes on to get what she wants. And she has no moral brakes that we can see. Her passions are cold and calculated. Watching Pugh take on this character is a blast. We see her mind working. She's constantly observing, assessing and taking action based on her observations. She manipulates. She will stop at nothing, and towards the end, there is a shocking scene during which I though...well, I've never seen this depicted on screen quite so disturbingly.
This is a slow burn of a movie. The sex scenes are passionate and energetic, but brief. Everything else moves at a stately pace. This is not an "action" movie. It has moments of humor, certainly, but the entire film has a dark cast to it. The lighting and the bleak land help...but so does Pugh's understated (but somehow juicy) performance. The film has a few unanswered questions (what's up with the maid?) and ends at a point where we feel there's more story to be told. And while we can clearly read Katherine's mind, the other characters are most cyphers. In a way, this reinforces the notion that everyone else is being seen through HER eyes, and those eyes don't much care what's going on in the minds of others...BUT for the audience, we'd probably like to know a little more about the other folks in this world.
But overall, I found the movie to be a treat to watch, and the story was certainly quite different. Some themes were familiar, but I've never seen them played out in this manner. Certainly worth a look.
Lady Macbeth is a 2016 British drama film directed by William Oldroyd.
While this period movie is somewhat stark and minimalist, it is never slow or uninteresting. I was constantly wondering what would happen next. Containing good dramatic performances with the odd touch of humour.
Stumbled across this movie on HBO, caught the last 47 minutes and now I'm looking for a way to watch it through it's entirety!
An incredibly intense film. Brilliantly paced and acted. Some stellar sound editing and direction going on in this movie. I was transfixed throughout the whole thing. One of those movies where the lights came up and I just had to sit there and digest what I'd just seen for a few minutes.
Intense adaptation of a Russian novel, transplanted from 19th century Russia to the same period in England, fascinates and irritates with a mesmerizing performance by Florence Pugh.
- Lady Macbeth is a caged animal, desperate for freedom. -
Being the daughter of a literature teacher means that some of my earliest memories are of Shakespeare. I am particularly attached to Macbeth, the story of the Scottish noble whose lust for power sets him up for the most tragic downfall. But any Shakespeare lover knows that Macbeth would never have started down his violent journey without the cunning and ruthless determination of his wife, only known as Lady Macbeth.
So obviously that was on my mind as I settled into the theater to watch multi-award winning Lady Macbeth and wondered how it would tie in to this most gruesome and most unnerving of Shakespearean plays. I expected a dark period drama - but the film went way past that. Get ready for a truly psychological thriller.
Set in the in the desolate moors of rural England, the movie sets us immediately in the middle of a loveless wedding between young Katherine (Florence Pugh, Marcella) and Alexander Lester (Paul Hilton, Wuthering Heights). Katherine seems to have a hearty dose of realism going into her marriage but is clearly unprepared for the total disinterest of her new husband who insists that she remain shut up in the house at all times.
That all changes when the men of the house leave to investigate an explosion on one of their properties. Katherine, previously bogged down by weariness and listless empty hours, opens the window. Goes outside. Spies into the servants' quarters. And the fire inside her begins to wake up.
We know nothing of Katherine's previous family, history, or even how old she is. Instead, we learn about her by watching her eyes, watching her interactions with the servants, with her husband, and with Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis, MI-5), a groomsman who entices her into a passionate, illicit affair. I was so intrigued by the way the film allowed me to peer into this household without any major character backstory. Even by the end I still wasn't sure what was inside Katherine's mind, but that just amped up the suspense and reminded me that this is no Jane Austen piece.
Florence Pugh gives a slow-burning performance simmering with wildness and terrifying surprises as Lady Macbeth. Macbeth's chaos and bloodthirsty decisions spring only from her own desperate need for freedom and autonomy in a world where she's bought and sold and imprisoned like an animal.
Starving for affection and freedom, her romance with Sebastian is truly one of Shakespearean-level drama. Their brutish affection toes the line between love and hate, anger and passion, admiration and disdain. Sometimes it was frankly distressing, but I think this is intentional. As Shakespeare wrote, "violent delights have violent ends" (Romeo and Juliet).
Naomi Ackie (Doctor Who, season 9) who plays the maidservant Anna, helps Lady Macbeth find a powerful glimpse into class and race relations. Of the characters, Anna's emotions are felt and seen the most keenly; her fear, worry, and humiliation are so visceral that I felt for her far more than any other character. Anna, timid and relentlessly obedient, spends most of the film trying to survive the madness spreading through the household - and she does what little she can to dissuade her mistress from diving headlong into destruction. Her fate is inseparably linked with Katherine's own choices. It leaves audiences holding their breath, wondering - will Katherine, who has been so beaten down and so oppressed herself - take heed for the fate of those even further down on the ladder of oppression?
Atypical of a period piece in this genre, there are about as many black or mixed-race actors in the principle cast as there are white actors. Some, like Anna, are servants (not slaves; England abolished slavery 30 years before this story takes place) but some are not. The representation is refreshing to see, although, like much else in Lady Macbeth, the issue of race is largely unspoken and open to interpretation. Maybe the director and actors are using racial lines to add layers to the performances (does it fuel Alexander's rage against Sebastian? Does it influence Katherine's choice of who to scapegoat?) but it's not explicit enough to tell. I got the sense it was more than just Diversity For Diversity's Sake - but others definitely could come away with more unsettled or confused feelings about it.
I loved how this movie surprised me, kept my interest, and even made me think back on one of my favorite plays in a new light. "Come, you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here, and fill me from the crown to the toe top-full of direst cruelty!" cries Lady Macbeth in Act I, scene 5. It's vile and disturbing to see any character set aside their tenderness and mercy for selfish gain and violence. By the last few scenes, I was in such mental anguish and shock that I could barely watch. But movies like Lady Macbeth remind us that when humans are treated inhumanely, we are capable of more destruction than we know.
This review was first published on Narrative Muse, http://narrativemuse.co/movies/lady-macbeth, and was written by Debbie Holloway. Narrative Muse curates the best books and movies by and about women and non-binary folk on our website http://narrativemuse.co and our social media channels.