Lady Macbeth

Studio: Lionsgate

Oct 16, 2017 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

There’s an obvious instinct to view female anti-heroes as inherently feminist. In a world where male actors rack up awards for playing complicated, amoral protagonists like Walter White and Don Draper, it’s tempting to cheer on female characters who wreak bloody havoc on the persons and societies holding them back, who take what they want and do what they want without care for the consequences. Lady Macbeth, the feature debut of director William Oldroyd, plays as a cautionary tale about celebrating anti-heroes, regardless of their gender.

Transposing the 1865 Russian novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District by Nikolai Leskov to the countryside of northern England, Lady Macbeth begins with as sympathetic a heroine as you could ask for. Katherine Lester is a young woman who has been married off to a man she barely knows. Her husband is an unloving drunk and both of them live under the disapproving eye of his foul-tempered father. She’s confined to an enormous, empty house with only servants and two men who can’t stand her for company. As the days and months pass, Katherine begins acting out. At first her defiance manifests in small ways; getting a bit too drunk at dinner, going outside when she’s not supposed to. But as her husband and father-in-law become stricter and Katherine begins to get a taste for what life as a woman of means can offer, her minor rebellions quickly takes a turn for the violent.

For all the murder and mayhem that ultimately ensue, Lady Macbeth is a quiet, measured film. Oldroyd’s filmmaking takes its time creating a clear distinction between the house Katherine is trapped in and the freedom she craves. The mansion is huge from the outside but Oldroyd’s formal compositions and the minimalist set designs make it feel look and feel like series of nicely furnished prison cells, and the lack of music makes every footstep and rustle of clothing sound deafening. When Katherine is able to escape to the fields and forests outside, handheld camerawork and the sounds of wind and nature remind us of what she’s missing. Similarly, the abuse Katherine suffers begins in small but purposeful ways; her maid painfully combing out her hair, being cramming her into a corset, being forced to sit at attention during long boring dinners while she can barely keep her eyes open from lack of sleep. All of these small cuts keep us on her side when she finally lashes out.

The curveball comes when Katherine’s actions and ambition outstrip her righteous anger, transforming her into the villain of the piece in the third act. This manifests in ways both obvious and subtle, the latter of which is exemplified in Katherine’s treatment of her black maid, Anna. Despite an initial camaraderie born of their shared suffering at the hands of the men in their lives, Katherine displays what could charitably be described as a lack of intersectionality towards her non-white subordinates. Like Cersei Lannister writ small, Katherine is the worst-case scenario endgame of a society that treats its women as well-groomed, expensively dressed baby factories. Poisoned by her own gender and class-based mistreatment, Katherine - played with a stone-faced interiority by newcomer Florence Pugh - becomes emblematic of the forces that created her.

The Lionsgate DVD release of Lady Macbeth contains only a brief behind-the-scenes featurette discussing the look of the film and the challenge of creating a period piece on a minimal budget. 


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