The 400-Word Review: Lady MacBeth
By Sean Collier
August 2, 2017
The dark-as-pitch period drama Lady Macbeth invokes the name of Shakespeare’s most famous female, in part, to set your expectations. Early on, you may be moved to sympathy for our lead; that’s fine. Just know that you’re not going to feel quite so good about her later on.
Florence Pugh, in a star-making performance, plays Katherine, a young woman bartered into a troublesome marriage. It’s 1865, and the English countryside is no safe harbor for respectful domestic partnerships; the man of the house, Alexander (Paul Hilton), has little interest in Katherine beyond dictating her habits and whereabouts (strictly within the manor’s walls, of course).
When Alexander leaves on business, Katherine begins to explore; when she happens upon a perverse assault on her maid Anna (Naomi Ackie), she responds not with sympathy for her fellow woman but with intrigue for Anna’s abusers, primarily stable hand Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis). They begin a flagrant affair, much to the shock of those in Katherine’s orbit — staff and family alike.
There is something of the dime-store romance novel in the early going, as Katherine and Sebastian carry out a series of steamy, candlelit dalliances. The circumstances of their meeting are an indication of what is to come, however. Katherine is determined to escape from the control of her kin; with no proper recourse, she turns to methods most improper.
The historic fantasy devolves into a master class in shock and depravity, then, as Katherine is driven to actions much more bloody and bold with every passing day. In this regard, Lady Macbeth is an interesting experiment; what do you make of a film that contains only antagonists? Katherine is not a hero of any kind, and the rest of the cast are similarly flawed, save a few pure victims. It’s a fascinating way to tell a story; rob the audience of any rooting interest and an odd purity emerges.
Alice Birch’s screenplay, adapting the 19th-century Russian novella “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District,” moves swiftly and sparsely. Yet this is a film that simultaneously bathes in the inherent romance of its setting — the wind sweeping across fields, flickering light cast against bare walls — and rebels against it, upending a longstanding literary fantasy. Early moments will recall Jane Austen; the film’s conclusion will dash that comparison even more thoroughly than that zombie adaptation managed. Yet, for the strong-willed audience, there is plenty here.
My Rating: 8/10
Sean Collier is the Associate Editor of Pittsburgh Magazine and a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. Read more from Sean at pittsburghmagazine.com/afterdark