There’s a tendency to equate period pieces with stuffy, boring drama. In fairness, this comes from a long history of films that are stuffy, boring period pieces. That can do a disservice to period pieces that use their settings to challenge their audiences, though. Challenging misconceptions certainly comes into play with Lady Macbeth, a British adaptation of the 19th-century Russian novella Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.
Young Katherine (Florence Pugh) is essentially sold into marriage when a harsh older English industrialist (Christopher Fairbank) arranges for her to marry his son and produce an heir – a challenge, given that her cruel new spouse (Paul Hilton) prefers for her to strip and face the wall while he pleasures himself loudly from across the room. She’s commanded to stay indoors, so she spends her days waiting inside, quietly, while being attended to by one of the maids, Anna (Naomi Ackie). When her husband and father-in-law leave for extended periods of time to take care of unspecified business, Katherine begins to explore the grounds – as well as a worker in the stable, Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis). As their affair continues, they become less concerned with concealing it, leading to a series of murders intent on keeping the two safe.
Lady Macbeth is fascinating to watch from a modern lens, because there are some contradictory elements that come into play. Given the cruel treatment Katherine experiences at the hands of her husband and father-in-law, you’re inclined to root for her as she lets loose with Sebastian. The first few deaths that come about even feel, if not justified, at least relieving in some sense. But as time goes on, the victims become far more innocent, and it’s not just harder to root for Katherine – it’s impossible.
Further twisting things for the story is how race comes into play in the film. Anna, who’s frequently traumatized by many of the characters in the film, including Katherine, is black. Sebastian’s race is ambiguous, but clearly not white. Halfway through the film, a young boy comes into the picture – the ward and illegitimate child of Katherine’s husband, who is mixed. With that, what may initially seem like a story about female empowerment becomes more specifically about white feminism from Katherine’s perspective, and more broadly about the ways in which those who are oppressed in one forum may use their privilege to oppress others. There’s no doubt that Katherine is oppressed, but as the film eventually demonstrates, she has no problem becoming the oppressor.
Director William Oldroyd, making his film directing debut, and writer Alice Birch have crafted an intriguing film that offers more twists and intrigue than its setting and abbreviated running time would suggest. Aiding tremendously is the performance from Pugh, who without saying a word can demonstrate how much she’s bristling at the treatment she faces as the film opens, and makes her descent all the more fascinating to watch. Lady Macbeth is one of the stronger films of the year, and absolutely worth watching.