Based on the 1865 Russian novella, “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” by Nikolai Leskov, and adapted for the screen by Alice Birch, Lady Macbeth is a chilling period drama about “Katherine’s” (Florence Pugh) loveless marriage to “Alexander” (Paul Hilton), the metaphorical chains he attempts to put on her body and her spirit, and her tumultuous affair with the farmhand, “Sebastian” (Cosmo Jarvis). With Alexander away for the majority of the film, Katherine and Sebastian take reign of the estate while reveling in the enjoyment of each other’s bodies. However, once their affair is discovered, their happiness becomes threatened by the strict laws of mid-nineteenth century life, and the inevitable punishment of their sins. (EBT: 4/5)
Review by FF2 Contributor Elyse B. Thaler
From the beginning, “Katherine” (Florence Pugh) is not the typical young, demure, mid-nineteenth century wife. Instead, it is her strength that threatens the stability of the household she has married into.
Katherine and her housemaid, “Anna” (Naomi Ackie), prepare for her new husband, “Alexander’s” (Paul Hilton), arrival to their bedroom on her wedding night. Anna is curious as to whether Katherine is afraid of her first time laying with a man. Regardless of any fear bubbling underneath the surface, Katherine almost seems smug in her calm. However, she and her husband’s first night together ends without consummation after he degradingly demands she remove her nightdress, and in response, callously looks her up and down, and then takes to his bed to sleep.
This lack of physical touch becomes the routine in their household. In fact, the only passion from Alexander comes in anger in his demand that Katherine stay indoors at all times, claiming the fresh air is harmful to her health. Katherine is forced to spend her days either staring out windows that overlook the beautiful English countryside, or falling asleep on various pieces of furniture throughout the house, presumably, out of sheer boredom and depression. Her nights are then spent without the physical love necessary for her to fulfill her duty of producing an heir, a feat impossible with Alexander’s unwillingness to even touch her.
However, luck seems to change when Alexander and his father, “Boris” (Christopher Fairbank), the owner of the estate, leave for an unknown amount of time to handle business in another village. For the first time, we see Katherine step outside the confines of the walls to breathe in the fresh air. With her husband gone, she wanders the fields with hair let down and a peaceful look on her face. She is free, except for one last need left unsatisfied.
One day Katherine hears a woman’s screams and men’s laughter coming from the stables. She investigates, finding Anna hanging naked, from the ceiling of the barn, surrounded by farmhands laughing and taunting her. One of the men, “Sebastian” (Cosmo Jarvis), is a new and unfamiliar worker. After Anna is released, the interaction between Katherine and Sebastian hints at something dangerous, yet exciting to come.
That night, Sebastian forces himself into Katherine’s bedroom. Her resistance does not last long, thus beginning an intense and passionate affair. However, once rumors of her sins reach both her father-in-law and her husband, Katherine and Sebastian must do whatever it takes to remain together forever.
One of the most brilliant polarities Lady Macbeth toes is the subtle difference between victim and villain. Katherine is young and should be a vibrant woman; instead, her husband and the period she lives in hold her prisoner. The audience cannot help but sympathize with the boredom she must feel every day of her existence. It is only once she takes her life into her own hands that sympathy starts to sway towards disgust as she and Sebastian perform terrible deeds to keep their affair a secret. But does she really deserve to be blamed? Wouldn’t anyone who has spent their life confined by the strict laws of their society do whatever it takes to maintain their freedom once they get a taste of it?
The filmmakers cleverly use cinematography to support and bring to life the suffocating sense of isolation present within the story. Long shots of empty countryside, wind howling through tall, dense forest truly has a haunting effect, especially when pieced together with the chilling and resonating score.
Furthermore, questions left unanswered in the film only serve to aid in the disconcerting feeling imposed on the audience.
On the other hand, some shots of the characters feel self-indulgent in how long the camera holds the same shot to focus on a reaction. Additionally, the violence in the film is, at times, disturbing to watch; though, arguably, that is the intent. However, audiences with weaker stomachs will appreciate the warning.
Screenwriter Alice Birch manages to take Leskov’s original novel and bring it to the screen in a manner that feels fresh and memorable. Florence Pugh’s breathtaking performance takes the film to the next level by giving the audience a strong, female character. One who, even when you disagree with her actions, you still hold love, admiration, and sympathy for. A woman who is, arguably, a victim of her circumstances. Furthermore, it is fitting that no music plays while the credits roll, because the ride Lady Macbeth takes you on needs that silence so that you, the viewer, has a chance to contemplate what you are capable of doing for love, what you are capable of doing for freedom.
©Elyse Bunt Thaler (07/20/17) FF2 Media
Top Photo: A stoic Katherine.
Middle Photo: Sebastian and Katherine discussing what they are going to do and how to deal with what they’ve already done.
Bottom Photo: Katherine, free to let her hair down and venture outside.
Photo Credits: Ari Wegner
Q: Does Lady Macbeth pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?
Although, the film centers around Katherine’s relationship with men, there is an important bond with her housemaid, Anna. They share a few scenes discussing day-to-day topics, such as the harshness of a sponge while Katherine is bathing, potential health risks of the fresh air, and Anna’s childhood.