Released: May 2017
Director: William Oldroyd
About a third of the way through watching Lady Macbeth you might find yourself start to feel like you’re suffocating. Trapped by crinolines, closed windows, empty rooms and the slow, slow passage of time. Every lingering camera shot, every silent moment that passes, every single echoing footstep weighs heavier and heavier, as it does on Katherine (Florence Pugh), our young focal point. The incredible direction from William Oldroyd does not belie that this is his first feature length film, although it does that his background is in theatre. I don’t doubt that it is this background that gave him the confidence to make such a quiet film. There is no soundtrack, no unnecessary lines of dialogue, nothing to break the intense build up of frustration and anger at this stultifying world.
Luckily for us, our hero rebels, grasping a momentary freedom offered to her and refusing to relinquish it. The change in direction feels like a literal breath of air, as you remember how to breathe again and you feel her restraints listing from you as well. How far she can and should take this new freedom is the exploration of the rest of the film. In exploring her new found agency, testing the impact she can make on a world that previously she felt she would simply pass through, she goes to extremes. What starts as making you cheer for her freedom quickly leaves you staring through your fingers, but as much as you may not want to watch, or to condone her actions, it is undeniably logical and most importantly, representative.
It is in this Oldroyd again shows both his own theatrical heritage and also that of the source material, the Russian novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. This is not a film about one woman treated badly. This is a film about womankind, stripped of agency for centuries, and how far should new found freedoms be taken. It matters little the character of men in the film, nice or nasty, they equally oppress, with intention or without. Never is this made clearer than when a small boy later is immediately elevated about Katherine in position and status in her own home. It is a film of women against the patriarchy, never person versus person.
Crucially, for those who cannot stomach feminist messages in their films, it’s also a hypnotizing watch, following a young girl become a powerful woman with no tools beyond her cunning and command. It descends dizzyingly from potential Austen nearly-ran to a tense thriller, with added elements of psychological drama.
Even for those who do choose to see the second-story in this film, that of a bigger story than one woman trapped by her own circumstances, the film is pleasingly nuanced. However much you may enjoy Katherine taking control, you will be hard-pressed to like her, much less be able to champion her actions. An interesting element that could perhaps do with more exploration is the relationship and power dynamic between Katherine and her black servant Agnes. It’s a perfect and subtle representation of those who have been oppressed reenacting that behaviour on others, how even the seemingly powerless can wield the power they do have as a weapon.
The cast have to carry so much, with no music to subliminally guide your emotions, no easy lines of dialogue so you know what they are thinking- this is an acting masterclass from all concerned. So much is unsaid and yet all motives are laid bare through certain looks and gestures. Florence Pugh is undoubtedly the star, and for a debut performance doesn’t give a hint of insecurity or of being undeveloped. Cosmo Jarvis has less to do, but still excels, and I hope to see both newcomers in plenty more leading roles before long.