Lady Macbeth

A review by Dan Lalande

It’s been labelled everything from an upside-down period piece to a feminist parable – and it may be, with much argument, select parts of all of the above. The final analysis has it, however, that the controversial British indie Lady Macbeth (adapted from a Russian novella and not from Shakespeare) is, in fact, something far less dense, far less political, and alas, far less important.

We are not in Middle Age Scotland here but Victorian England, where a round-faced redhead named Katherine (played by Florence Pugh) finds herself part of a package deal with a parcel of land; her sole practical function is to put her adolescent hips at the disposal of her husband (Paul Hilton, whose freakily funereal countenance would be perfect fronting a grunge band) in order to provide him with an heir, a duty curtailed by his oblique sexual inclinations. And so, in short, frustrated order, Katherine becomes an objet d’art, her brilliant blue dress contrasting with the beige-brown sterility of the household, her prim-grim composure almost always framed in vacuous wide shots where, settled on a central settee, a door frame metaphorically “boxes her in.” Clocks don’t tick in this household either, nor do footfalls sound or does the surrounding sea intrude. And the spare company Katherine is forced to keep are but semi-silent stereotypes, until one of them – a mixed race, bigger-than-his-britches stable hand –  comes to life when he chancily ignites her unrequited lust.

It is here where the trouble, for both characters and audience, begins. Sebastian, the sinewy, self-serving servant (played by the photogenic Cosmo Jarvis,) is no knight in shining armour. His pedigree is plainly corrupt; our introduction to him is as co-conspirator in a bizarre gang rape. Thus, the ensuing connubial connection between he and our heroine immediately upsets any political pretensions the film might purport; blindly, it immediately veers off the course of feminist revenge treatise into the ditch that is that persistent but perplexing dramatic convention, the female rape fantasy. The script may the responsibility of a female writer (playwright Alice Birch) but that’s not enough to excuse this early trespass. From that moment forward, the film is forced to climb a very steep hill indeed, the summit of redemption anything but clear.

To its credit, though, it tries. It takes on a certain fun, Hitchcockian vibe, in fact, after the scandalous actions of our lustful young lovers are uncovered and the story devotes itself to their bloody extrication from what their love hath wrought – a sticky situation which builds to a memorable climax paralleling Michael Haneke’s acclaimed (and far better) Amour.

But even this is rife with upset or unexploited elements – namely, the race card, which, in the end, reveals itself as but a plot device. The elements for a truly dimensional drama are all there, yet in the end, they remain there, as static as the heroine whenever she settles on the settee. Out, out, damn plot!

Come comeuppance time, the weight of circumstance upon the characters’ souls is unevenly distributed. Fine. Writer’s choice. Not everybody in every such film has to find their humanity. Such a decision, however, robs the public yet again – this time, of the evolution of the heroine. Let her not find salvation, okay, but by all means, let her find something. Otherwise, let her join the swollen ranks of cinema’s cardboard killers – Michael Myers, Freddy Kruger, etc.  – and let us call this, for all of its period and political pretensions, but a slasher flick in vintage clothing.

Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth put one over on her husband. This one puts one over on its audience.

(Lady Macbeth is currently playing in select theaters including TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto.)

Dan Lalande is a writer and critic based in Ottawa. You can find him on his Youtube channel HERE.