Being the daughter of a literature teacher means that some of my earliest memories are of Shakespeare. I am particularly attached to Macbeth, the story of the Scottish noble whose lust for power sets him up for the most tragic downfall. But any Shakespeare lover knows that Macbeth would never have started down his violent journey without the cunning and ruthless determination of his wife, only known as Lady Macbeth.
So obviously that was on my mind as I settled into the theater to watch multi-award winning Lady Macbeth and wondered how it would tie in to this most gruesome and most unnerving of Shakespearean plays. I expected a dark period drama – but the film went way past that. Get ready for a truly psychological thriller.
Set in the in the desolate moors of rural England, the movie sets us immediately in the middle of a loveless wedding between young Katherine (Florence Pugh, Marcella) and Alexander Lester (Paul Hilton, Wuthering Heights). Katherine seems to have a hearty dose of realism going into her marriage but is clearly unprepared for the total disinterest of her new husband who insists that she remain shut up in the house at all times.
That all changes when the men of the house leave to investigate an explosion on one of their properties. Katherine, previously bogged down by weariness and listless empty hours, opens the window. Goes outside. Spies into the servants’ quarters. And the fire inside her begins to wake up.
We know nothing of Katherine’s previous family, history, or even how old she is. Instead, we learn about her by watching her eyes, watching her interactions with the servants, with her husband, and with Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis, MI-5), a groomsman who entices her into a passionate, illicit affair. I was so intrigued by the way the film allowed me to peer into this household without any major character backstory. Even by the end I still wasn’t sure what was inside Katherine’s mind, but that just amped up the suspense and reminded me that this is no Jane Austen piece.
Florence Pugh gives a slow-burning performance simmering with wildness and terrifying surprises as Lady Macbeth. Macbeth’s chaos and bloodthirsty decisions spring only from her own desperate need for freedom and autonomy in a world where she’s bought and sold and imprisoned like an animal.
Starving for affection and freedom, her romance with Sebastian is truly one of Shakespearean-level drama. Their brutish affection toes the line between love and hate, anger and passion, admiration and disdain. Sometimes it was frankly distressing, but I think this is intentional. As Shakespeare wrote, “violent delights have violent ends” (Romeo and Juliet).
Naomi Ackie (Doctor Who, season 9) who plays the maidservant Anna, helps Lady Macbeth find a powerful glimpse into class and race relations. Of the characters, Anna’s emotions are felt and seen the most keenly; her fear, worry, and humiliation are so visceral that I felt for her far more than any other character. Anna, timid and relentlessly obedient, spends most of the film trying to survive the madness spreading through the household – and she does what little she can to dissuade her mistress from diving headlong into destruction. Her fate is inseparably linked with Katherine’s own choices. It leaves audiences holding their breath, wondering – will Katherine, who has been so beaten down and so oppressed herself – take heed for the fate of those even further down on the ladder of oppression?
Atypical of a period piece in this genre, there are about as many black or mixed-race actors in the principle cast as there are white actors. Some, like Anna, are servants (not slaves; England abolished slavery 30 years before this story takes place) but some are not. The representation is refreshing to see, although, like much else in Lady Macbeth, the issue of race is largely unspoken and open to interpretation. Maybe the director and actors are using racial lines to add layers to the performances (does it fuel Alexander’s rage against Sebastian? Does it influence Katherine’s choice of who to scapegoat?) but it’s not explicit enough to tell. I got the sense it was more than just Diversity For Diversity’s Sake – but others definitely could come away with more unsettled or confused feelings about it.
I loved how this movie surprised me, kept my interest, and even made me think back on one of my favorite plays in a new light. “Come, you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here, and fill me from the crown to the toe top-full of direst cruelty!” cries Lady Macbeth in Act I, scene 5. It’s vile and disturbing to see any character set aside their tenderness and mercy for selfish gain and violence. By the last few scenes, I was in such mental anguish and shock that I could barely watch. But movies like Lady Macbeth remind us that when humans are treated inhumanely, we are capable of more destruction than we know.