Lady Macbeth is a shocking, brilliant first film by 37-year-old British director William Oldroyd.
“We’re all fallen beings. But these creatures have fallen into the abyss below the abyss, where tearers of the flesh and spirit (and rank murderers of the soul and body) reign.”
Do such remorseless, amoral, psychopathic creatures really exist in our world? Yes, they do. I’ve met more than one or two of them. And so, perhaps, have you.
They’ll smile, and smile, then plunge the knife into your jugular. No compassion, no connection to our world beyond deadly narcissism and fierce, morbid egomania. We’re all fallen beings. But these creatures have fallen into the abyss below the abyss, where tearers of the flesh and spirit (and rank murderers of the soul and body) reign.
Rural England, 1865
At first we sympathize with the pretty, doll-like, 17-year-old Katherine. She’s caged with her familial sadists in a grand, bleak house on a grand, gloomy estate. She’s sexlessly married to Alexander (Paul Hilton), a scowling, brutish man of 40. Boris (Christopher Fairbank), her barbarous father-in-law, spits out reprimands and slaps her hard. Vermeer light falls on her lonely and austere interior life scenes. But the silence is supulchral rather than meditative. The quiet grows louder. The stillness intensifies.
Alexander attends to an explosion at one of the family collieries. Boris attends to business in London. Katherine, up until that moment forcibly housebound, breaks free. Fields, birds, trees, and water flood her liberated consciousness. Life, O Life! A young and virile groomsman, Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis) flirts with her. He invades her room. She does not scream, much. He boldly pounces. She resists, then succumbs. The next morning, Katherine wakes up and laughs self-delightedly. A love-and-sex affair of 19th century novelistic intensity ensues.
We continue to sympathize with Katherine. Hasn’t she now obtained the burgeoning love, sex, companionship, selfhood and fulfillment owed to her by 21st century standards of justice and human rights? But is this justice really possible in a Victorian century of transactional wifely duty, where Katherine has been bought and maintained like a breedworthy cow, or a scrap of land barely large enough to bury a family?
“Vermeer light falls on her lonely and austere interior life scenes. But the silence is supulchral rather than meditative. The quiet grows louder. The stillness intensifies.”
Let the bodies hit the floor
With a name like Lady Macbeth, you might expect a series of murders, followed by nightmares, sleepwalking, hysteria, nocturnal handwashings, and suicide. But Lady Macbeth riffs like Coltrane on Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, an 1865 novella by Russian writer Nikolai Leskov. The novella inspired a 1933 opera by Shostakovich and a 1962 film by Andrzej Wadja. The ultimate source is Shakepeare’s 1605-06 Macbeth, inspired by a medieval tale of Scottish kingship in Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1587).
Director William Oldroyd learned his craft at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. He’s sired theatre and opera, from Waiting for Godot to Don Pasquale. But this is his first feature film, and it’s a work of austerely beautiful art. Oldroyd directs with controlled but amorous lentitude. His Lady Macbeth deploys sharp, sudden bursts of sex, violence, or romantic nature ecstasy. It plays with light, colour, line and sound with a refined, minimalist tension, like a spider’s web swaying gently in an ominous breeze. In a film replete with evocative detail, the opening marriage scene stands out. A white veil suggests virtue and innocence. But scarlet hair hints at the blood to come.
I am particulary enamoured of the bold originality of the sound design. Chairs squeak, horsewagons clatter, wind sighs and water rushes in counterpoint to the audible tying of corsets and bodices. No music until the final frame, when a dark and tremendous orchestral crescendo floods the cinema.
Actress Florence Pugh deftly and effortlessly embodies Katherine’s illegible psychopathology. When she sits, in her jewel-like blue hoop skirt, a cultic object perched on her winged Victorian couch—human-headed but with the torso of a winged lioness—she is as enigmatic and inscrutable as the Sphinx. And in her vampiric presence we observe, like witnesses at the courts of Cleopatra, Mayan royalty, or Vladimir Putin, the human sacrifices necessary in every form of self-preserving, ego-aggrandizing power.
The Queen is not dead
The Queen, my Lord, is dead.
Katherine is a victim of the exquisite passions of the soul’s maladies. But she is also a victim of monstrous social norms. Boris humiliates and abuses her, Alexander, and her maid Anna (Naomi Ackie). Alexander in turn humiliates and abuses her (and, we assume, everyone else he comes into contact with). In this perverted dystopia, where misery, anguish, and aggression seethe, even Anna becomes a victim-victimizer. In a scene where she bathes her mistress, she scalds her repeatedly with hot water, and brushes her back rather too violently.
Katherine’s only escape is murder. At first we understand, waveringly. But then we’re shocked by how far she will go to satisfy her desires. In the end, will she get away with it?
This is a movie in which sex and violence, nature and art are far darker powers than civilization can admit. It is accurate in its anatomy of a life not lived, a life too many must endure.
Lady Macbeth opens July 28.