Movie Review: Lady Macbeth

A fascinating tale of a life in Victorian England is based on a Russian novel

Directed by William Oldroyd
With Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis, Paul Hilton, Naomi Ackie, Christopher Fairbank

Some viewers may feel they were tricked by false advertising, The drama Lady Macbeth does not take its inspiration from Shakespeare. It is an adaptation of the 1865 Russian novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District by Nikolai Leskov, reset to Victorian England.

That aside, the film is a superior low-budget costume drama focusing on the treatment of woman as property. Katherine (Florence Pugh) is married to a man she doesn't know named Alexander (Paul Hilton), and moves into his run-down manor house. He ignores her on the wedding night and suggests that it would be better if she didn't wander around the grounds. In other words, she is a prisoner in the house.

Her father-in-law, Boris (Christopher Fairbank), blames her for the lack of an heir, and insists that her maid prevents her from falling asleep before her husband goes to bed. He drinks until late in the night. The only person Katherine has much contact with is the maid, but she can't really be trusted very much.

As the title suggests, though, she is not going to passively waste her life locked up in a house in the middle of nowhere. She starts to plot about how to change her situation. At the same time, she becomes interested in one of the stable hands, as there is no sex in her marriage. Divorce is not an option, as the law favored men.

This spurs the plot, which gets darker and more twisted as Katherine attempts to get herself free of her loveless marriage. And unforeseen complications keep popping up, posing the question of whether Katherine in clever enough and cold-hearted enough to take another step to cover up what she has already done.

Like the Lady Macbeth in the Shakespeare play, Katherine proves to be driven in her desire to clear a path to her freedom. At first she seems like a proto-feminist standing up for her rights in the only way she can since the law is not on her side. But as the film plows on, the viewer has to re-assess this analysis.

The film has a relatively low budget, and no big name stars. It succeeds by having a taught script and equally lean acting and direction. The husband and father-in-law are truly unlikeable characters, but they don't go over the top in explosive displays of cruelty. It is the banal manner in which they systematically abuse Katherine that is so chilling.

Florence Pugh as Katherine is riveting, never showing any emotion or giving herself away once she takes matters into her hands. This contrasts with her rather passionate scenes with her stable-hand lover.

The action takes place mostly in an almost barren manor house, a place that looks cold and uninviting even in the summer. Even the grounds and the weather are hostile. There is some mention of a nearby village, but Katherine never goes there.

Costume dramas often suffer from overly elaborate costumes, which are always too clean, and too much period décor filling every nook and cranny of screen space. Lady Macbeth has people appearing rather dirty and in worn clothes, which helps to make the action seem more real, rather than a romance novel fantasy. Perhaps this was due to the low budget, but nonetheless is an asset.

There are some more parallels to the Shakespeare story, and in the end the movie works as a reimagining of themes of Macbeth from the point of view of the female character. The film is the sort of drama seldom seen on a big screen anymore, as big budget action fare has taken over. Fans of drama should take the opportunity to check it out.

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