Since its release at the Toronto International Film Festival, Lady Macbeth has been teased to the general public via trailers that hint of lust and suffering. Now that it’s finally released to the wider public – receiving critical acclaim as early reports trickle in – it seems the peeks of the picture weren’t lying.
However, the scene they set isn’t the exact one we are given. And this diversion isn’t aided by those early critics and their misleading reviews. Lady Macbeth, so early into its life, faces the potential hazard of being a victim of presumed success and acclaim.
The story is a reworking of the 1865 novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District by Nikolai Leskov. The title was a nod to Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth. Of course, she was a woman happy to commit murder to further her gains.
In Lady Macbeth, the female lead becomes Katherine, a young woman “purchased” by Christopher Fairbank’s Boris for his distant and cold son, Alexander, played by Paul Hilton. The setting is now Victorian North East England (complete with accents). The early scenes set the tone of the marriage and the house where Katherine resides. Boris has expectations of how his son should be satisfied.
In turn, Katherine is subservient to Alexander’s demands. But her husband would rather humiliate and degrade than allow actual closeness. The reason he favours belittling over making the marriage work, and why his abuse never escalates to the physical, is a theme left to fester without direct explanation.
It moves along in the early stages where, without much appearing to happen, a lot is going on. This trick is performed in no small part to Florence Pugh’s portrayal of Katherine. Her enforced reserve, and reluctant obedience, doesn’t mask the effervescent character bubbling below the surface.
When the men of the house leave on business for a number of weeks, it gives her free reign to attempt an escape from its claustrophobic confines. She is a girl that likes the outdoors but is treated like a caged bird. Free to walk the moors an unlocking of her mind begins. With it, her inhibitions fall away, desires are allowed to be explored.
Hearing a raucous commotion in the barns, she goes to investigate. There she discovers her servant, Naomi Ackie’s Anna, has been stripped and hung in a bag. The male workers are rowdy and behaving improperly. She commands they face the wall – treatment she is personally familiar with – sends Anna away, before chastising the men.
Rather than being the end of trouble, it opens Pandora’s box. It is here she meets Cosmo Jarvis as Sebastian. A love affair ensues that appears to be based purely on lust and forbidden sins. But that would be overly simplistic and deny Pugh the credit she deserves for leading Sebastian – and the viewer – on a journey of tainted love.
We saw in The Falling she can use sexuality as a tool for captivation, here the technique is far more subtle, much more explosive. She grows before our eyes, at times appears pained with potential outcomes, reveals humanity, acts as ruthless as a heartless animal, while remaining tempered throughout.
The overwhelming positive response to this film is really an accolade for Florence Pugh.
She is the medium the claustrophobic atmosphere uses to increase throughout. By breathing life into her character, it masks other failings. There wasn’t enough screen time – presumably due to budget constraints – for the descent to madness to be fully explored.
Shakespeare’s Macbeth sees its protagonists make cold decisions as they seek power, only to endure haunting demises. Pugh is barely allowed to tap into this facet before the viewer is served up a conclusion to the story (one that differs from the novella).
It means the gravitas of each choice is lost as we move to signposted events. For all Pugh’s excellent work, it means there comes a point empathy turns to dismay to disgust without the chance to consider the human side of her drives.
If love can be illogical, Lady Macbeth is a great advert for the emotion.
In time, expectations of the film will level and the great shining light – Florence Pugh – will be the only element worthy of note. When the contents of the story are taken into account, it means the film can’t be considered a complete success.