It’s difficult to say what kind of film Lady Macbeth is, though its aspirations are readily apparent. On the surface, the filmmakers strive to be champions for women’s rights, and to help shine a light on the injustices of patriarchy, both past and present. The script, based on the Russian novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk by Nikolai Leskov, centers on the titular heroine, Katherine (Florence Pugh), a young woman trapped in a loveless marriage with a much older man, Alexander (Paul Hilton). Her predicament goes largely unnoticed in 20th century England, and her husband practices complete control over Katherine’s life and body. She is particularly frustrated regarding their sex life, as Alexander only wants to please himself, and one one occasion, even commands her to stand naked facing the far wall while he pleasures himself. We watch as Alexander’s father, Boris (Christopher Fairbanks), also wields his power over Katherine, chastising her for not performing her womanly duties to her husband.
Unable to leave the house, Katherine searches for anything to combat the boredom and stuffiness of her husband’s estate. When Alexander and Boris are forced away on business, Katherine takes the opportunity to venture out to the stable, where she happens upon a few of the stable hands harassing the house maids. Katherine quickly puts an end to it, and though a brash young stable hand named Sebastian piques her interest, she initially resists his advances, not only out of her own sense of propriety as a married woman, but also because Sebastian is of mixed race. When Sebastian comes to Katherine’s bedroom that night, she continues to resist him, but eventually gives in to her attraction and the two sleep together. Thus begins a passionate love affair; but when Boris returns from his business travels, having heard about Katherine’s infidelity, Katherine is forced to take action to save her new love, setting off a chain of events that spiral dangerously out of control.
Ostensibly, Lady Macbeth is a feminist film that addresses issues still relevant in our society through an examination of past societal norms. Needless to say, the situation for women has generally improved since 1865, but issues related to women’s right to control their own bodies and (in some places) achieve freedom from puritanical laws continue to make headlines, making films like Lady Macbeth more timely, perhaps even necessary. However, though it is the story of a woman who defies the edicts of the times to embrace her sexuality and pursue an extramarital affair, it wavers in its progressive authenticity. Katherine begins as a victim; she is someone whose actions, whether good or bad, moral or immoral, or made justified by her situation. But as the story progresses, her newfound freedom and overzealous passion for Sebastian lead her down a dark path, undermining her once sympathetic image.
Moreover, without giving away too much of Lady Macbeth’s second act, Katherine, like so many movie heroine’s before her, is made to suffer for her wrongdoing. So, when all is said in done, Lady Macbeth tells the story of a suffering woman who breaks free of society’s shackles to carve out a little happiness for herself, only to be punished and fall once again into despair. Perhaps the filmmakers simply want to drive their point home, but it comes across as overkill. It’s not so much that I would have preferred a cheerful, happy ending for Katherine, only that it seems it was the intention of the filmmakers to create a socially relevant, feminist story, and the story arc doesn’t necessarily support this lofty goal. It’s antithetical to feminist ideologies to continuously torture a woman on screen for our viewing pleasure, and yet it is also necessary to directly address those same forces inflicting pain on the woman, making it almost impossible to make a truly feminist film, with respect to both form and content; but therein lies the difficulty of making such a film.
Social relevance aside, Lady Macbeth is a beautiful film, with gorgeous cinematography that is both aesthetically pleasing and pragmatic in its minimalism. Scenes often play out with just a few long shots, taking in every subtle reaction of the characters as they occupy the claustrophobic house. Katherine and Sebastian’s love for one another is both seen and felt, even with little dialogue dedicated to the affair. It is so strong as to be above elucidation. Rather than pontificating on how much they love one another, the pair simply practice their love, as often and as intensely as possible. Though director William Oldroyd may have faltered a little in his attempt to produce a truly feminist story, Lady Macbeth still manages to be an excellent film that is worthy of repeated viewings and analysis.
Rating: ★★★★ out of 5