Judging by this year’s film releases, hell hath no fury like a woman subjugated by oppressive male energy. Look at who is in the White House and the rise of the MRA’s online, and you’ll see why we’re experiencing such pushback within female-driven cinema against their small-minded stupidity. Between the sentiments expressed in MY COUSIN RACHEL, THE BEGUILED and WONDER WOMAN, we’re a powder keg ready to explode. LADY MACBETH’s only difference from the aforementioned is that it doesn’t even try to deliver its message cloaked in any honey. Our shifty protagonist is wickedly delicious, coming here to, borrowing a phrase, “kick-ass and chew bubblegum – only she’s all out of bubblegum.” She’s given her last f*ck. Director William Oldroyd’s adaptation of the 1865 Russian novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtsenk is an oxymoron of sorts, burning with rage and desire, yet so bone-chilling it gives frostbite.
Young Katherine (Florence Pugh) was bought along with a plot of land in an arranged marriage to much older, morose husband Alexander Lester (Paul Hilton). He’s so sexually repressed, their wedding night goes unconsummated and later, he can only masturbate in her presence. To make matters worse, the gal who once loved the air and outdoors is trapped in a claustrophobic home, forced into absolute boredom and monotony. Its stifling atmosphere is made even more painful by her unforgiving, abusive father-in-law Boris (Christopher Fairbank, who should be cast as a Disney villain immediately). Maid Anna (Naomi Ackie) makes sure Katherine sticks to the rules. After Alexander is sent away to deal with an emergency and Boris, who’s given her explicit instructions to bear an heir and stay indoors, leaves on a business trip, Katherine takes matters into her own hands, striking up a passionate romance with the estate’s new groomsman, Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis). He’s sexy, strong, dangerous and, similar to her, not inclined to obey orders. This unbridled, unchecked power indulges her angry, rebellious nature, foolishly guiding her into some morally sticky areas and selfish actions.
What’s wildly attractive about the picture is Katherine. She’s the type of role not typically seen on screen anymore. It’s a role more prevalent in Hollywood’s golden age, played by Barbara Stanwyck or Bette Davis – a type of female character woefully missing from our modern cinematic landscape. While she is surely a complex and dynamic heroine, she’s the definition of “unlikeable” – a term studios recoil from, like a vampire baring its teeth, hissing from a crucifix. But here’s the deal those studio executives never get that’s proven here: you can be unlikeable, so long as your motives are understandable and unapologetic. She commits horrific acts as this masterful manipulator, purely out of self-seeking ego and yet, we as the audience, are still right there rooting for her. It’s a risk I’m happy to see someone is still taking. Screenwriter Alice Birch takes time to include the subtle metaphoric tie between Katherine and the family dog being “tied up for too long.” The cat, also symbolic of her psyche, earns prime placement, prowling, even taking a seat at the table at another point.
Pugh, who gives a career-defining, star-making, cage-rattling, mind-blowing performance, adroitly is up to par, fleshing out Katherine’s badass, broken-by-societal-constraints psyche. Simply put, her work here is incredible and worth the admission price. You’ll want to see her in ALL the movies after you view her firecracker craft here. Her precision is incomparable, turning on a dime from softly naive to stone-cold defiant.
Wildly different in scope, scale and sentiment from the all-around punishing A WOMAN’S LIFE (UNE VIE), Oldroyd utilizes the widescreen ratio beautifully. Shots are constructed symmetrically, accurately calculated in intent. We always know who’s in the commanding power seat of a scene based on where they are located in the shot. We can also feel the austere gravitas of the chokehold the home has over Katherine minus any artifice (like a tighter aspect ratio, or excessive close-ups). Ari Wegner’s cinematography shines, especially in conjunction with Holly Waddington’s costume design and Jacqueline Abrahams’ production design. Katherine’s bright royal blue dress (representative of hope and life) pops with just as much vibrancy as her black mourning attire (representing the character’s dark underpinnings).
Despite being overtly comparative to the tragic titular figure of MADAME BOVARY, LADY MACBETH feels refreshingly like two middle fingers pointed straight at the patriarchy.
LADY MACBETH opens in limited release on July 14.