Overview: In 19th century England, a young bride struggles against the confinement of an abusive marriage. BBC Films; 2016; 89 minutes.
I’m thick-skinned: Lady Macbeth explores with quiet subtlety and complexity a protagonist, Catherine (Florence Pugh), who is mistreated and cruel, sympathetic and reprehensible. Its story, based on a 1865 novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, could be considered pulpy; a sexual thriller complete with adultery, clandestine affairs with an attractive farmhand (Cosmo Jarvis’ Sebastian), a young woman’s exploration of her sexuality, and eventually murder. But it is presented with absolute austerity that draws the viewer in and feels sincere and compelling.
William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth is a film without excess. From its minimal score and simple cinematography, there is a frankness with which it addresses Catherine. This film is as sharp and unrelenting as its protagonist, without wasted dialogue or extraneous scenes. There is also very little in terms of exposition; the film’s first scene is Catherine’s marriage to middle-aged Alexander (Paul Hilton). The sight of wide-eyed Catherine, hesitant expression obfuscated by a veil, is effective enough. She is initially unafraid, but immediately Alexander mistreats her, and thus begins her descent. When he first leaves on unexplained business, Catherine is free, and rejects her role as a housewife, sleeping with Sebastian, and roaming freely around the grounds.
The way in which the feeling of triumph that comes from Catherine’s freedom is complicated by what comes later is masterfully done, and rejects any sense of binary morality. Catherine is a product of her environment, certainly, but to what end does that allow the viewer to forgive her? Lady Macbeth asks the viewer this question throughout and makes no attempt to help us answer it. Catherine’s youth and the injustice of her circumstances lead to the collapse of her innocence, and her desperation and cruelty.
I like the fresh air: Despite the title, Lady Macbeth this is not the story of a noble woman’s ambition for political power. Catherine is a middle-class housewife in rural England, and her ambition is of a different type. Catherine longs for freedom, a power of agency within her own home, which becomes a longing to control those around her. In search of this control she becomes coldhearted, reigning over her household with the ruthlessness of a monarch.
Lady Macbeth approaches emotional and physical abuse like a contagious disease; once used against Catherine, she uses the same tactics of torment against those around her. The fact that she uses the same tactics, even sometimes the same phrases, against her maid Anna (Naomi Ackie) and eventually her lover Sebastian, that were used against her, gives a sense of tragedy and context to to the fear and desperation of her circumstance.
Social roles are well-crafted and subtle in terms of illuminating the society in which the film is set. Despite the presence of only several characters, aspects of gender, class, and race are present within the world that Catherine commands. These roles and hierarchies interact with, and believably contribute to, the corruption of morality.
Desperation and lack of perspective borne of isolation is a theme bolstered by the gorgeous cinematography of Lady Macbeth. Symmetry and negative space isolate Catherine and other characters throughout, and create the ever-present sense of propriety that Catherine’s life demands. The voices of characters echo in wood-lined rooms that feel, because of the composition of every frame, lonely, cold, and too big for their inhabitants. In this house Catherine and Sebastian, and eventually Anna are poisoned by the faults of Alexander and father-in-law Boris (Christopher Fairbank) with this house as the incubator. They all participate in a sequestered life that allows its characters insecurities and fears to fester and eventually spiral out of control.
She’s a disease: There are no wasted moments, and all the imagery is used to strengthen themes of perversion of normality and of decay. A brief image of the decaying corpse of her husband’s horse, of a house cat eating food left neglected on a kitchen table, of a morbid photo taken of Catherine and the propped-up corpse of her father-in-law; there is a sense that the normal structure of nature in and around this house has been corrupted in an almost supernatural way. All these images, strange yet brief, all contribute with concision and beauty to the overarching bleakness of the film.
Lady Macbeth loses some of its focus in the final third, in which two new characters enter the picture, a surprise to both Catherine and the viewer. While the characters feel somewhat extraneous in terms of the story, in terms of the cruelty they bring out in Catherine and Sebastian they effectively continue the troubling degradation of her character that persists throughout. The introduction of outsiders disrupts the insular society that Catherine has painstakingly crafted to her liking, and pushes her to acts of unforgivable selfishness.
Conclusion: Lady Macbeth is surprising in its moral neutrality, beautiful in its ability to disturb. It is visually stunning and still able to convey bleakness and isolation of its protagonist and setting. With sparse but effective dialogue and minimal exposition the film is brilliant in the way it displays with sympathy and severity the corruption of its protagonist.
Featured Image: BBC Films