Lady Macbeth (2017)
dir. William Oldroyd
written by: Alice Birch
starring: Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis, Naomi Ackie, Christopher Fairbank
Finally, my last SIFF 2017 review belongs to Lady Macbeth, an adaptation for a Russian novel by Nikolai Leskov and placed in a 19th century English estate. Katherine (Florence Pugh), a young woman sold into marriage to a much older man, finds pleasure in her husband and father-in-law’s absences with a rugged footman on the farm. As the trysts become increasingly intimate, she must determine more drastic ways to conceal the affair. Located in a minimalist, drafty mansion and shot with a low, steady frame, Lady Macbeth is a tense, gender-role defying period piece.
Director William Oldroyd reaps increasingly uneasy drama from the debut screenplay by Alice Birch. In a similar vein to The Handmaiden, the sympathies for Katherine flutter around her behavior unbecoming of a young woman. Treated as untouched meat by her husband and made to be a bored set piece by the family, her decisions made within the empty house waver between the roles of Macbeth the general and Macbeth the lady. Each retelling of Shakespeare’s tragedy shifts the blame between the instigator, and Florence Pugh’s glaring performance leaves the audience guessing whether she is perpetrator or victim. She detests her placement in the home, and Pugh’s ire is well-voiced in her hateful sneers and pointedly opposing responses. A relative newcomer, Pugh exposes the pain in a loveless, forced marriage and the danger of expecting subservience from a untethered soul. Her manipulation is a masterful tool.
Paired with Cosmo Jarvis as her lover Sebastian and her maid Anna, played by Naomi Ackie, Katherine’s subservient position in marriage explores the displayed anger capable in damaged class systems. Ackie is emotive glory in Anna as she loses autonomy surrounding Katherine’s transgressions. Aggressed by Sebastian (Jarvis is all sex and wealthless domination) and demeaned by Katherine, Ackie stands as victim of the pressures of servitude and perfection within an exacting society. Layers of pain are found in her time of servitude, and the breathless reaction to repeated reproaches and attacks leaves her shattered as the plot progresses. She finds a fantastic supporting turn.
A tale of gender, class, and retribution, Lady Macbeth provides powerfully simple imagery of a woman refusing her lot. From nodding off in her solitude to advancing through her dominance, Pugh breaches the extent of Katherine’s power. One is mistaken in believing a corseted lady will naturally accept her placement as heir-bearer or table decoration; the rightful indignation digs deep into Pugh’s performance. This film is a darkly humorous and morally troubling jaunt.