REVIEW: Lady Macbeth [2017]

Score: 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½

Rating: R | Runtime: 89 minutes | Release Date: April 28th, 2017 (UK)
Studio: Altitude Film Entertainment / Roadside Attractions
Director(s): William Oldroyd
Writer(s): Alice Birch / Nikolai Leskov (novella Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk)

“We did it”

At the back of William Oldroyd‘s Lady Macbeth (adapted for the screen by Alice Birch from Nikolai Leskov‘s 1865 novella Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk) are the ideas of oppression, power, and the fluidity of both as the oppressed often find themselves clawing their way to a position of becoming oppressor above another more marginalized sect of society. This theme isn’t one that has been solved by any means since the time of 19th century England and its persecution of women as subservient baby-makers to be bought by the affluent and sold by the poor. Just look at the oft-shared numbers of white women staunchly supporting Donald Trump in the 2016 election—knowingly putting their gender at risk if only to retain the superiority their race still affords them.

There’s an inherent greed to humanity, one driving us towards success by any means necessary even if the journey towards one’s own freedom secures a nightmarish descent for those on whose backs we stand to achieve it. On one hand you cannot blame someone for showing the fortitude to rise above his/her station and prove the system wrong. But the other posits questions of morality as far as the price paid and collateral damage ignored. You don’t have to look further than social media and the unfortunate reality some minorities witness daily as fair-weather activism wherein causes affecting white women are attended en masse just as those specifically targeting black or Muslim females get labeled as mobs because the Caucasians who asked for help then conveniently stay home.

This is the two-pronged trajectory Oldroyd’s film projects: one half showing an empowered woman (Florence Pugh‘s Katherine) taking ownership of herself and her identity by wresting it away from the husband (Paul Hilton‘s Alexander) and father-in-law (Christopher Fairbank‘s Boris) seeking to steal it, the second providing the unfortunate reality that control consumes us in a way that can render us just as terrifying as those we defeated. It’s a result of Katherine being at the center of England’s domestic hierarchy. She’s a servant to the men and yet has servants of her own. Just as the former bark orders she must follow, Katherine can turn around and bark the same imperatives at Anna (Naomi Ackie) and Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis). The concept of “deserving” becomes meaningless opposite “rule”.

No juxtaposition exposes this duality better than a scene wherein Alexander orders Katherine to undress and face the wall precedes another where Sebastian and the other groomsman are caught abusing Anna in the stables. The second scene occurs while Katherine is alone on the estate—her husband and father-in-law out-of-town for business they don’t describe. It’s therefore her moment to turn the tables and wield exactly what was wielded against her. She orders Sebastian and the others to face the wall and stop smiling. She chastises them, forcing them to understand their place while releasing Anna from her precarious position. Is it done to save this poor soul as Katherine wishes to be saved? Or is Anna’s safety simply a coincidental result of her Lady’s expression of ownership?

It’s tough to say at this point because Katherine is our target of empathy. We witness the hardships she endures—the emotional, psychological, and physical pain wrought by the cruelty of men. We crave the opportunities that arise to enact revenge either through adultery (an affair with Sebastian sparks where a sexual connection between she and Alexander couldn’t) or murder. So often we get caught up in bloody justice’s lust for carnage because monsters deserve to be vanquished. It’s easy then to ignore the inevitability that new monsters are born in their stead. Somewhere along the way Katherine’s actions embolden her to embrace her status, those benefits of a marriage she did not want. Innocence has a tendency of disappearing so quickly that we hardly notice it’s gone.

Lady Macbeth lets its story progress in a way that makes it impossible to keep Katherine on a pedestal. We forgive her adultery because it provides something she wants that her life can’t. We justify the demise of those holding her in invisible chains because they have no moral right to do so. What happens next—the trailer keenly keeps us in the dark—is where you discover who you are alongside the characters onscreen. Katherine’s freedom comes at a price and her vices follow in tow. As the floodgates open and more crimes must be committed in order to preserve past transgressions, actions become guided by either guilt or satisfaction. At a certain point we must wonder if events unfold in the pursuit of love or power.

The result is a chilling, bold depiction of our souls weighed by a system put in place by men rather than Gods. Some are so ravaged by the futility of their situation that they become psychologically scarred from fighting back (Anna suddenly goes mute when what she knows proves too much to bear). Some actively seek a balance of society’s scales only to discover they may not have the stomach to push forward once the imbalance swings in their favor. And others find confidence and pride in that reversal, sponges absorbing the rewards of their evil actions until arguments of self-defense are no longer believable. Oldroyd ostensibly creates a film of metamorphosis as his three leads (Pugh, Jarvis, and Ackie) find their mannerisms, expressions, and demeanor permanently altered.

Monsters become helpless and the helpless become monsters. The story is greed incarnate wrapped in a display of white privilege and the fine line separating heroes from tyrants. Its title is a direct reference to Shakespeare, but don’t assume the players haunted by what they’ve done or the orchestrators of pain willing to live with it follow suit. You can read the whole as a series of causes and effects or perhaps the end plants a seed that more was planned in advance than previously assumed. To watch innocence get lost to darkness is harrowing enough with the unforgettable performances on display led by Pugh’s force of nature. But accepting each action as the willfully devious plan of a psychopath turns tense period drama into psychologically scarring horror.

[1] Florence Pugh in LADY MACBETH. Photo credit: Laurie Sparham. Courtesy of Roadside Attractions
[2] Cosmo Jarvis in LADY MACBETH. Photo credit: Courtesy of Roadside Attractions
[3] Cosmo Jarvis and Florence Pugh in LADY MACBETH. Photo credit: Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

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