IT IS THE night of her wedding. Katherine (a stunning Florence Pugh), a demure, Botticelli-esque beauty, is asked whether the house is too cold for her and whether she is apprehensive as to what will transpire that night. She says “no” to both questions. Her proper Victorian blushes hide a heart much bolder and colder than either her questioner or the dark, stern, sour-faced family into which she has been ‘sold’ (along with a parcel of useless land) can possibly have imagined.
She is not so much a ‘bride’ with its connotation of love and affection, as a womb without rights or power…a mere child-bearing vessel whose owner (the father of the groom) is in need of succession.
That night, her reluctant husband simply goes to bed. On their first night of ‘intimacy’, he orders her to strip off and face the wall. “Don’t look at me,” he further commands, as he masturbates, sitting a few feet away from her naked body (His own pathetic rebellion against his father’s mandate that he produce an heir). The following day, her -black- maid (Naomi Ackie) – like her, just another piece of property – aggressively, hurtingly brushes her hair. Father, husband, maid…the sources of the house’s dark chill…need to establish from the onset where the power lies; they need to ensure that this newcomer to their airless country landholding, their kingdom, knows, like every woman should, her place in the pecking order of property and sex.
And for a while, Katherine – the perfectly beautiful precious object, (straight) laced tightly into her bustier, her wild flowing locks tamed into tight cords framing her porcelain face – succumbs to her role.
She is kept indoors (as if the propriety of property demands constraint within the property) and sinks into a dull languor. But, as the father says of one of his wild dogs, “the bitch has been kept chained for too long”.
Freedom will out.
But this woman’s liberation follows that of the eponymous Lady Macbeth, hatched as she roams free, away from the inhibiting house, upon the “damned heath”. The story follows her meticulous and carefully planned assumption of power through her brazen defiance of the roles written for her sex. If the Victorian norm was one of male power over her sex, she breaks away through the power of sex itself and begins a passionate affair with one of her staff, a mixed race laborer (Cosmo Jarvis). It is an affair that smashes all taboos: of class segregation, adultery and interracial sex.
And finally the taboo of murder.
It is as if, once unleashed from some rules, no rules further apply. “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”. Her sexual lust soon morphs, or perhaps is the same as, her lust for power. Like Lady Macbeth, no damned Duncan will stand in her murderous way to power and (eventual ownership of the) property.
As Katherine, Florence Pugh (last seen with Maisie Williams in “The Falling”) is a tremendous presence. She exudes a compelling, lethal stillness; her gentle voice and mask-like calm never quite mask the wild anarchy residing within. Once Katherine has emerged from her society-demanded stupor, Pugh’s charisma is riveting. She effortlessly seduces us to her very dark side. She’s like a younger, more subtle, more lethal version of Natalie Dormer.
Naomi Ackie is Anna, the abused maid, a mainly silent witness (having been struck dumb) to Katherine’s bloody swath of destruction. She too (another relative newcomer) has a compelling presence and offers a nicely balance yin to Katherine’s yan.
The story is based on a mid-nineteenth century Russian novel, “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk” by Nikolai Leskov, and, transferred to England in the movie version, has been brilliantly realized by two newcomers: director William Oldroyd (his first full length movie)and play-write turned screenwriter Alice Birch. Her script is at times overly theatrical…It’s a movie that is so heavily dependent on its layers of symbolism and its dramatization of the themes of power and repression that at times character takes back seat to message.
That said, it’s a well-made, thoroughly engaging and important film. Well worth seeing
LADY MACBETH. Dir: William Oldroyd. With: Florence Pugh, Christopher Fairbank, Cosmo Jarvis, Naomi Ackie. Screenplay: Alice Birch. Cinematographer: Ari Wegner. Production Designer: Jacqueline Abrahams