Lady Macbeth (2016)
Written by Alice Birch and Nikolai Leskov
Directed by William Oldroyd
This is not a movie about Lady Macbeth. It’s not an adaptation of Shakespeare. It’s not a reimagining of the events of his play. This is a film noir, set in the English Victorian era, about a classic femme fatale, told from her perspective coldly and neutrally. She’s a child bride, sold off to a wealthy man so his son can have a wife. The problem is that the son has no attraction to her; we later learn why, and it’s not what you expect. Left alone in a dusty manor house, our protagonist seeks out the affections of a gruff stablehand, someone like she used to know before this life. The two engage in a torrid affair, the house staff knowing exactly what is going on, and this all leads to murder.
Lady Katherine is our main character, a young woman who enjoys nature and taking long walks through the fields and the woods. In her new life, under the thumb of her father in law, she is to remain locked up inside. He can’t quite understand why she hasn’t given her husband a child yet, blaming Katherine for not “performing her wifely duties.” Anna, the maid & attendant to Katherine, tries to keep her lady close to the rules of the house, but when the men must depart to deal with a business emergency, all that falls apart. Katherine has learned that her reasonable requests will always be met with barking orders from the patriarch; therefore, she has to do as she pleases when she can and damn the lot of them.
Florence Pugh is our lead actor and once again reminds the audience what a force to be reckoned with she can be. She begins the movie very demure and quiet, yet the minute the men leave, she loosens up and allows herself to enjoy and luxuriate in her surroundings, both inside and out. The film isn’t satisfied with just making her an oppressed sympathetic character and positions her against Anna. Anna is a black woman, and with this detail and the period, we can infer many things about her life before this moment. At one point, Katherine asks Anna about her family and home, and the maid replies, holding back tears, that she hasn’t seen her family in years and has no idea what home means anymore. Katherine forces Anna to be partially complicit in a murder by having her sit by while it happens.
Katherine is a character that has come out of poverty, sold like property. Instead of having empathy for the house staff, she quickly settles into her position of power. While the stablehand Sebastian is her lover, and she expresses devotion to him, there is still a power structure that separates the two. Does Sebastian have a choice in this relationship? We see that when Katherine needs to protect appearances that Sebastian gets quickly spurned and put back in his place. Katherine is also watching at all times and uses her knowledge of the staff to her benefit in the end. Is it inevitable that people lifted out of poverty, given wealth and power, will abuse those they once shared a station with?
The lack of background on Katherine is to the benefit of the story. The audience doesn’t have a detailed history given to understand her, so we’re in the perspective of the house staff. We know somethings, but our experience with her is only in this position of the lady of the house. There is honest sympathy to be had for the protagonist even from the viewpoint of the staff as the men verbally abuse her. Her only justification for what she does to Anna and Sebastian is out of pure narcissistic survival. Would we do anything differently in such an oppressed position? Survival is everything in such a brutal time. The film doesn’t try to make its judgment, presents the story, and wants the audience to wrestle with it.