With the remarkable breakout performance by 21-year-old English actress Florence Pugh, ‘Lady Macbeth’ is a surprisingly first-rate drama. Make no mistake; this is not a boring period piece or a Shakespeare adaptation. It is a gothic tale about how domestic abuse and oppression can lead to horrific acts. Similar to Sofia Coppola’s ‘The Beguiled,’ director William Oldroyd’s feature debut examines the lengths a woman will go to protect her freedom and identity in a man’s world. With sparse dialogue, the film shows how a young lady’s spirit is stifled in 19th century England. Be forewarned that ‘Lady Macbeth’ turns from a pleasant period piece drama to a dark, psychological thriller in the blink of an eye.
When we first see Katherine (Pugh), it’s on her wedding day in 1865. She is forced into a marriage with a man Alexander (Paul Hilton), twice her age because his wealthy father Boris (Christopher Fairbank) demands an heir to his vast fortune. This should be a joyous occasion but it quickly turns austere the way she is treated by her husband. In the bedroom, Katherine’s new husband shouts out, “Don’t smile. Take off your dress. Face the wall.” Early on, it is clear that their cold and sexless marriage will be a challenge for her. When she desires to venture outdoors, Alexander forbids her from leaving the house. She defiantly proclaims, “I’m thick-thinned” to no avail. Her maid Anna (Naomie Ackie) is witness to her boredom and frustration as she tightens a corset and hooped skirt around Katherine’s waist.
Day after day, Katherine is subjected to the same monotonous routine. She sits in the parlor in a beautiful blue dress fighting off sleep. When her husband and father-in-law leave the family’s estate on business, Katherine takes the opportunity to explore the outside world. She goes for walks along the English moors. It awakens something inside of her. The cinematography by Ari Wegner perfectly captures the windswept English countryside. When she begins a torrid love affair with the dark-skinned stable hand Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), Katherine’s passion is rekindled. It’s a fascinating transformation now that Katherine is allowed to break free from the restrictive confines of the home. She even has the audacity to invite Sebastian to dinner while her maid looks on in shocking silence. Oldroyd’s film also touches on race relations during that time period.
When the men return from their business trip, they are not pleased with Katherine’s new-found independence. When they try to cage her back up, she is a force to be reckoned with. It would be easy to cheer her on but Olyroyd thickens the plot by turning the spotlight on the heroine’s amoral romance. Each time Katherine lashes out at her suppressors, it leads her and Sebastian down a darker path. No matter what they do, their romance is inevitably doomed. It’s another example of a prim woman resorting to drastic measures to regain her freedom. As Katherine’s actions get more and more desperate and violent, you get the sense that nothing will be able to save her illicit passion. Sebastian also realizes that their love affair is doomed. It’s a fascinating character study on how cruel acts can quickly turn victims into oppressors.
Shot on a shoestring budget, the film takes advantage of its bleak settings. The estate and costumes are used as a form of imprisonment for Katherine. In the opening shots, she is wearing a blue dress that turns to a grey one later in the story. Pugh is stellar in the lead role. She reveals layers to the character that make the audience question her motives. We want to support her for taking control of her life but at what cost? When we see underneath the veil, she reveals a shocking dark side. It’s an impressive performance for the talented newcomer. Pugh is mesmerizing and makes ‘Lady Macbeth’ a must-see at your local arthouse theater.