You couldn’t exactly be faulted for walking into Lady Macbeth assuming that you were seeing a movie about, well, Lady Macbeth. As enticing as a retelling of the Bard’s most infamous work told from the perspective of Macbeth’s string-pulling beloved might be, this is not that story.
To be sure, there is an apt symbolic meaning behind the title of William Oldroyd’s feature-length directorial debut. The metaphorical stand in for the power behind Shakespeare’s mad king is every bit as conniving and treacherous as her namesake, taking audiences on a journey down a psychological rabbit hole that examines the damage of unchecked repression.
Lady Macbeth is a taut, quick little thriller that packs the punch of Hitchcock musing in the territory of Victorian melodrama and Edgar Allan Poe. It’s an impactful poem of a film that is as beautiful to watch as it is terrifying to see.
Based on the 19th century Russian novella, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (later turned into an opera of semi-renown), the film follows the story of the newly betrothed Katherine (Florence Pugh) whose husband Alexander (Paul Hilton) is distant, abusive, and sexually degrading. Her new father-in-law, Boris (Christopher Fairbank), meanwhile, insists on keeping Katherine confined to the house, and at all times available to allow Alexander the chance to father an heir, while at all turns reminding her that he purchased her from her family. While Alexander is on a secretive journey away from the estate, Katherine embarks on a dangerous affair with Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), an employee on the farm. In the thrall of lust and freedom, Katherine will stop at nothing to get her every desire.
First time screenwriter Alice Birch packs an emotional punch into every scene of her tightly scripted tale. Lady Macbeth is a stunning work, especially considering both its writer and its director are both first timers. The film moves deliberately throughout its short, 90-minute runtime, leaving you with the feeling that every word, evert shot, and every movement are both important and necessary. That both Birch and Oldroyd have so little experience speaks well of their potential, considering how mesmerizing Lady Macbeth often is.
Much of the mesmerizing effect stems from the performance of Pugh, whose performance here is the stuff on which careers are built. Though she has appeared in several roles in smaller films, Lady Macbeth is a stunning step up for the young actress. Katherine is a role filled with nuance and subtext; as a character she traverses the terrains of lost confusion, filled with uncertainty about the world and her place in it, to willful and manipulative.
Pugh handles the subtleties of Birch’s script with a skill that belies her young age, and gives a powerful, magnificent performance. The film works as well as it does largely due to her (though certainly Birch’s script and Oldroyd’s directing help considerably) and watching her feels like watching the early works of one of the greats. She is a master in waiting, a star in formation.
Out now on DVD, Lady Macbeth is definitely a film worth seeking out. Its subtle tinges of horror and suspense are perfect for the more discerning fans of horror. This is a horror not of monsters or the supernatural, but of the human condition and the psyche. While the special features included on the release don’t add much by way of value to the purchase, it does make for a worthwhile Redbox pick up or VOD rental. Still, this is a movie that’s worth watching several times at least in order to pick up on the subtle innerworkings, and those who don’t mind buying a Blu-ray with scant special features will find something new to view with each new watching.
Lady Macbeth is now available on DVD.