Lady Macbeth Is A Murderous Joy
Review by Aaron Haughton
Based of the 1865 Russian novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, the film Lady Macbeth moves the novel's location to rural England in the mid-Victorian era where rebellion and sexuality were burgeoning. The film follows Katherine (played with brute force by Florence Pugh -- a name you should remember), who is plunged into a loveless marriage against her will to a bitter man twice her age where she is striped of pretty much all basic freedoms, playing second fiddle to the men of the house. This coldness and lack of love pushes her into the arms of one of the estate's workers, Sebastian (played by Cosmo Jarvis), a man who also defies the ways of the establishment, where her newfound affection drives her into severely increasing acts of violence.
In short, the film is an audacious delight of striking bravura. The film marks the debut of both the director, William Oldroyd, and the screenwriter, Alice Birch, and it's a brazen burst onto the scene for both of them. However, actress Florence Pugh is the film's shining star and delivers a performance that many spend their careers striving to achieve.
The film is a subtle technical masterpiece. It begins with a shaky, handheld camera, which initially turned me off and led me to question the film's direction; however, almost immediately after the title card flashed, the film began to get sturdy and stiff. This is a perfect representation of Katherine's character, at first being thrust into a marriage she does not want, being afraid and restricted, before rising into her own rebellious, independent nature. Oldroyd uses the camera in similar ways to Michael Haneke's Funny Games, allowing violence to occur outside the frame to allow our imaginations to get the better of us. He even goes a step farther and places us into Katherine's headspace by creating a phenomenal soundscape that includes Katherine's perspective, more precisely her breathing, in nearly all the shots.
Furthermore, you'll notice that the film has a bit of a Silence Of The Lambs-type framing, keeping the characters uncomfortably centered. Where Jonathan Demme used this framing to create subconscious unease in his viewers, Oldroyd uses it to constantly remind you who's at the center of the story, and while Katherine begins to give in to her darker, more primal nature, the framing suggests that she's perhaps coming into her own, despite her actions' inherent instability.
Alice Birch uses a meandering house cat to symbolize Katherine's motivations. Throughout the first act of the film, Katherine is forced to abide by her husband's rigid schedule, waiting on him hand and foot, not allowed to sleep or even go outside; she's restricted to the house, which is pretty much devoid of other female companions, aside from the servants and the cat. The house cat has more freedom than even Katherine is allowed and wanders throughout the house at its own discretion, jumps onto cabinets and even eats off the kitchen table; it too, like Katherine's husband and father-in-law, are a looming force whose only function is to taunt her. And, what better taunting symbolism than the symbol for femininity incarnate?
The film actually went a few layers deeper than the trailer reveals, which was a smart move on Roadside Attractions' part. In doing so, it allowed the film to surpass my own initial expectations, which were quite high, I might add. So, by the time the third act hit, I was already pleasantly taken aback by a wonderfully dark plot development that I didn't see coming. In fact, there's a lot to whet an appetite with this picture. If anything, I think that the ending may not fully satiate many moviegoers, and, to be frank, it fell a bit flat for me, but it also left me with the want to immediately see it again. And, in the endings defense, after looking into the original source material, the conclusion that Birch chose is a vast improvement to that of the novelization.
Overall, my quibbles with the film are fairly trite and minor and can be boiled down to only two grievances.
- The foundation of Katherine and Sebastian's relationship, which begins in an interesting way, but ultimately reduces itself down to a period piece rendition of 40s and 50s cinema, wherein man forces himself on girl, girl says, 'no no no, how dare you,' and pushes him away, and then decides that she's into it and gives him what he came after. Although, to be fair, that portion was lifted from the book, which also doesn't really merit full pardon.
- We are basically withheld Katherine's background and how she came to be married. The reason for this should've been given up front, as it doesn't really make an impact on the overall story; it's just blatant withholding. If anything, it's used to justify Katherine's actions with Sebastian, which wouldn't have changed at all had this exposition been presented earlier in the narrative.
Another minor thing I noticed that is noteworthy in a good way is that the film had pretty much no score, whatsoever. There are two, maybe three instances of score, which are just swells and droning tones to heighten the thematic tension. Other than that, it's an entirely built soundscape consisting of Katherine's breathing, the creaks and groans of the house, and the howling wind.
I would definitely encourage you to see this one in theaters. It's a film that challenges you as a viewer, but entertains all the same. Fans of Game Of Thrones should find it an easy watch, as it's basically about twisted characters and the motivations lurking behind their plays and actions.
Rating: 4 tightly drawn Victorian corsets out of 5.
What do you think? Did you find the film to be a masterful feat? We want to know. Share your thoughts and feelings in the comments section below, and, as always, remember to viddy well!