Katherine (Florence Pugh) has been promised in marriage to a much older man (Paul Hilton). She looks startlingly child-like, clad in a white lace wedding dress and delicate veil, as “worthless” as the land she has been sold with. Her husband forbids her from venturing too far from the house, in spite of her love of the outdoors. She is a caged possession, and, curiously, one that seems to bring her captor almost no joy.
Lady Macbeth is quite minimalist – there is little in the way of music or dialogue, and yet it maintains its darkly riveting atmosphere throughout. The film was adapted from the Nikolai Leskov novel Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk, but to suggest that it has little to do with Shakespeare would be false. One of the film’s greatest strengths is its ability to evoke the characterisation of the original play’s anti-heroine, and, indeed, some of the symbolic narrative moments, without ever mentioning the bard’s name. It is one of those curious films where, without its title, it would likely be read very differently.
The most striking thing we first notice about our protagonist, Katherine, is her perpetual boredom. Confined to a dusty house and trapped in a sexless, loveless marriage, all she can do is drift about aimlessly, perch on windowsills and fall asleep at inappropriate times. The image of her sitting in the centre of a sofa, adorned in a stunning gown and slowly nodding off is a powerful visual motif that gives us a little taste of her permanent, listless apathy. This is a woman who refuses to bow down to a patriarchal ideal, but is also not an innocent. Her violent actions, combined with the oppressive state that she is forced to bear creates a wonderful amorality within the film. Florence Pugh handles the character by walking a perfect line between sympathy and repulsion – she is never fully an innocent, yet she is clearly bursting with repressed sexual desire and lust for life. Stellar performances from the supporting cast are an invaluable asset to this film, including Katherine’s lover (Cosmo Jarvis) but especially Naomi Ackie, who plays the servant Anna. Her quiet, disbelieving horror makes to the perfect witness to Katherine’s terrible crimes. It is also worth noting that this film has a large percentage of black actors in a setting that many contemporary filmmakers have historically used to excuse employing all-white casts. The presence of many black characters does not feel anachronistic here and is artfully unobtrusive, suggesting that representation can be a rather effortless achievement.
Visually, Lady Macbeth is exquisite. The rural country is cold, damp, and muddy, and the house is dry, dusty and far too clean. Melbourne-based cinematographer, Ari Wegner, deserves a mention for her rigorous attention to detail in the composition of each frame. The film is also interwoven with various visual symbols – chiefly, Katherine’s wedding ring. It is the most prominent item of jewelry she wears, and the hand which adorns it is often positioned front-and-centre within a shot. The ring’s meaning is changed as it moves through the film – from a symbol of entrapment within a marriage to broken wedding vows. There is a certain stillness to these moments in the film, which similarly moves from uncomfortable to threatening as familiar scenes are revisited with new twists.
Lady Macbeth is not without fault – the narrative turns will likely be anticipated even by a moderately experienced film-goer – but it remains an example of how to effectively create atmosphere, tension, and utter horror while obscuring its moral politics. This is a film without a true villain, a true hero, or a reasonable line between right and wrong, and therein lies its power.