Lady Macbeth (2016)

  • Time: 89 min
  • Genre: Drama
  • Director: William Oldroyd
  • Cast: Florence Pugh, Christopher Fairbank, Cosmo Jarvis


Rural England, 1865. Katherine is stifled by her loveless marriage to a bitter man twice her age, whose family are cold and unforgiving. When she embarks on a passionate affair with a young worker on her husband’s estate, a force is unleashed inside her, so powerful that she will stop at nothing to get what she wants.


  • To be a woman in the world is to considered inferior, the second sex, mere property devoid of any rights or free will. Women rebelling against such notions have been fodder for many a writer, great or otherwise, the majority of whom have tracked how such independent-minded, free-spirited and sexually desirous women have often been tragically crushed by societal conventions. Take Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley, Émile Zola’s Thérèse Raquin, or Thomas Hardy’s Sue Bridehead in Jude the Obscure.

    Those heroines are spiritual sisters to Katherine, fiercely and formidably portrayed by Florence Pugh in British director William Oldroyd’s remarkable directorial debut, Lady Macbeth. Based on the 1865 novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District by Nikolai Leskov, which itself was based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the tale begins with Katherine’s marriage to the older Alexander (Paul Hilton), who immediately proves himself a distant, disinterested and sexually dysfunctional husband. She finds scant solace in the long stretch of days – forbidden to even stroll outside by her husband and his domineering father Boris (Christopher Fairbank), she slowly literally and figuratively suffocates inside her prison of a home. Corseted daily by house servant Anna (Naomi Ackie), who also performs the nightly ritual of untangling her mistress’s hair, Katherine simply sits and waits and waits and waits.

    When both Alexander and Boris leave town for several weeks to attend to business, Katherine stages a mutiny. It begins with minor infractions – taking walks and breathing in the sea air – and escalates into the major offense of conducting a passionate affair with farmhand Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis). Anna observes Katherine’s scandalous behaviour with an ever-growing fear of what might happen when Alexander and Boris return. As the film’s title clearly signals, Katherine is not above being cunning and conniving to get what she wants, whether it be doing away with those preventing her from continuing her affair with Sebastian or exploiting Sebastian and Anna’s race (both are black) to ensure the security of her own fragile position in the household. Katherine is a survivor through and through, and the chillingly methodical and unrepentant manner with which she does what she feels needs to be done will make one’s blood run cold.

    Screenwriter Alice Birch strips Leskov’s novella to its barest essentials and yet, even with Oldroyd’s equally unfussy direction, Lady Macbeth feels epic in ambition, combining elements of British heritage drama, feminist period piece, steamy noir, and racial and class critique into one cohesive whole. Oldroyd and his production team craft an excellently textured work out of an extremely limited budget (reportedly £500,000 as part of a regional film-funding program supported by BBC Films and the British Film Institute). Cinematographer Ari Wegner creates symmetrical compositions that emphasise the house’s gloomy and almost claustrophobic interiors. The vibrant peacock-blue gown that seems to dim with each wearing, subtly conveying the rot overtaking its wearer, is courtesy of costume designer Holly Waddington.

    The cast are uniformly excellent, but the film would be nothing without the nineteen-year-old Pugh, whose clear, consistent and masterful characterisation should establish her as an extremely talented actress with a hugely promising career.

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  • There is no music over the end credits — and hardly any during the drama. Director William Oldroyd provides no musical relief for this bleak drama about a woman’s liberation on a remote 19th Century English estate. The tone and the tale are stark, as befits a drama about people’s for and against power.
    The film examines three areas of power struggle: gender, class and race. The most obvious is Katherine’s growth from her husband and father-in-law’s “property” into a defiantly independent commander of her own body, house and fate.
    The film opens on her wedding but as we don’t see the husband it could as easily be her communion. She is isolated in her apparent innocence and submission. On their wedding night he orders her to strip, then turn to stare at the wall as he masturbates behind her. While taking his pleasure he denies her everything but humiliation. Where her mother taught her to enjoy the outdoors, her husband forbids her leaving the house.
    When he doesn’t order her about his father does, an even more powerful and unfeeling brute. Both by gender and money the two men control the girl they bought along with a piece of land “not fit for a cow to graze upon.” But when both men are called away for a business emergency Katherine discovers some freedom.
    In the scene where Katherine first discovers her power all three areas of struggle converge. She finds the estate labourers tormenting her black maid Anna, stripped and slapped about on a sling on the scales. Privileged in gender and colour, the men can freely debase her. When Katherine stops the torment she asserts her power in her husband’s earlier terms: She commands the men face the wall while Anna retrieves her clothes and flees.
    Katherine’s relationship with Anna provides the key to the heroine’s ambivalent development. When she stops Anna’s humiliation she may seem to be sympathetic to her despite their difference in class and colour. But her sympathy is qualified by the sexual arousal Kathrine feels from the scene, especially when the coarse groomsman Sebastian estimates Katherine’s weight by sweeping her up in his arms. Though she fights him off and reasserts her authority over him, her sexual awakening leaves her vulnerable. When he visits her bedroom later her initial resistance gives way to their sexual attraction and she pushes him onto her bed.
    From then on Katherine is dominated by her sexual liberation. She is like the dog, straining against her leash because “The bitch has been pent up too long.” She is the exuberant aggressor in their sex scenes, regardless of their class difference which scandalizes the estate and the community. In contrast, the cat agilely negotiates her interior empire, leaping for the spoils left her but remaining scrawny and hungry.
    Anna’s gender connection to Katherine gives way to her submission to the castes of colour and class. Her sympathy for her adulterous mistress is frozen by her fear of disruption. In the tub she brushes her mistress violently. When the father-in-law interrogates Anna about the missing wine, Katherine sits by silently, letting Anna be humiliated over the wine Katherine drank.
    Anna is rendered mute by her punishment in that scene. The father-in-law orders her to leave on her hands and feet, reduced to a dog. Not the sexually liberated one associated with Katherine, but the humiliated beaten servant. When Katherine revolts against her father-in-law, she orders Anna to sit and eat with her, violating her every instruction. She keeps Anna from going to the locked door to help or to admit the dying old man. Anna never speaks again, not even when she is challenged to deny Katherine’s final claim that Anna and Sebastian committed her murders.
    Having disposed of her two tyrants, Katherine is visited by a black woman and her young grandson, fathered by Katherine’s husband and formally declared his ward. Their presence is a new obstacle to her affair with Sebastian. After they murder her husband, his horse and then his ward, Sebastian can’t sustain his lover’s will. His class and its submissive conscience compel him to admit his and Katherine’s guilt.
    By now Katherine’s new-found heat reveals a commanding cold. Affecting grief and innocence, she claims Sebastian and Anna committed the murders. When the boy’s grandmother consoles her, Katherine’s story holds sway. Anna and Sebastian are carted to the gallows.
    Like Shakespeare’s tragic heroine, this Lady Macbeth is destroyed by her own attempt to transcend the limitations and disregard imposed upon her. She frees her heat, then to survive reveals the brutal cold of the woman prepared to exploit her sexuality, class and colour to survive. in this story a bitch in heat becomes a cold-hearted bitch. But the backdrop of privilege that has abused and restricted her at every turn shows her rather the victim than the villain in this transformation.
    Her success is bittersweet. She appears to have “won.” But her lover and maid are doomed, her servants have left and she is pregnant alone. In the last shot Katherine resumes the posture assigned her throughout her career in “her” house, formally perched, corseted and alone, on a hard seat in her husband’s cold sterile estate. Having shaken off her shackles she remains imprisoned in her husband’s estate, like the useless land he bought with her.

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