The period drama is best identified by it swoon-inducing romantic subplots and heavy melodrama. If the characters in Lady Macbeth stumbled upon the figures from a Jane Austen novel, a fistfight would probably ensue. William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth undoes all the pretty “love stuff” of works like Wuthering Heights and Pride and Prejudice in favor of an ugly and grim story of the need to achieve desire, often at the expense of others. Mocking, at times, the period dramas of old Lady Macbeth is often too slow for its own good but leading lady Florence Pugh is too compelling, and terrifying, to turn away from.
Set in 1865 a young woman named Katherine (Pugh) is sold into an arranged marriage with Alexander Lester (Paul Hilton). When Alexander leaves on a trip Katherine is left alone and unhappy until she meets a groomsman Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis). The two embark on a flagrant affair in front of everyone, leaving Katherine to find any means necessary to keep her new lover.
Lady Macbeth is a slow burn in the way that a frog doesn’t know he’s being boiled to death till the end. Alice Burch’s script keeps any history unrevealed, plopping the audience into a world where they’re just as adrift as Katherine. Required nightly to strip and face the wall, Katherine is in a plight similar to other young women of these types of stories, married off to men they don’t love and unable to explore the joys of a real relationship. Once Katherine claims her sexuality the film turns the lovers scheme into one of increasingly torment and murder. Where Shakespeare’s “Lady Macbeth” used her scheming to enhance her husband’s position, Katherine’s true nature reveals her as only elevating herself. The character is cold, calculating and shameless, which makes her fascinating in a world of winsome waifs.
However it’s hard to root for the eventual relationship Katherine ends up in with Sebastian, whose introduction comes from being the one to forcibly put Katherine’s maid Anna (Naomie Ackie) in a hog scale naked. Katherine finds herself drawn to the garish Heathcliffe-esque figure, and her ardor only increases when Sebastian tries to assault her. Nearly every relationship that plays in Lady Macbeth ranges differently on the “problematic” scale if only to remind us that these characters aren’t ones we particularly want to see succeed. This also could explain the lack of history to the characters. Katherine opens the movie at her wedding, looking frighteningly at her new husband. It isn’t until over an hour into the film that the audience is told Katherine has been bought and paid for by her husband. Information like this isn’t necessary, but it does leave the audience questioning the world of the movie itself, especially in the film’s third act when a reveal does explain Alexander’s actions.
Removed from the script’s flaws, Pugh’s performance is undeniably evocative. Her ethereal looks aside there’s a fire and tenacity to her performance that combines the determination of Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth with the girlish giddiness of Wuthering Heights’ Catherine. Pugh runs a gamut of emotions, from coldly eating breakfast as a man dies in the next room to being a mother figure to a little boy. As her relationship with Sebastian intensifies the comparisons to Emily Bronte’s novel become more poignant, with Pugh and Jarvis canoodling on the moors – though, interestingly enough, Pugh’s Katherine dictates the terms of their undying love. Her final reveal at the end is a master class of fear and trembling.
Nearly overshadowing Pugh is Ackie’s performance as Katherine’s maid Anna. Lady Macbeth actually manages to infuse a look at how race and gender interact, particularly in a period drama. Katherine, despite her lack of freedom in her marriage, still benefits from being a white woman in comparison to Anna. Through Ackie’s expressions, the things she says (and often doesn’t say), convey the terror and ultimately anguish of being a black woman, specifically, during the era. (Unfortunately quotes from the cast and director haven’t been too progressive in explaining this element.) It’s not surprising that the females get the meat of the movie’s best moments. Jarvis is good-looking and is worthy of being a love interest, but his character is too problematic to swoon over. A third act change of heart also feels like an attempt to soften him. Hilton is sufficiently disturbing as the man of the house. Unfortunately he disappears right away and leaves little impact overall.
Lady Macbeth is an acquired taste, but once you get it there’s no denying you want more. Florence Pugh and Naomi Ackie are worth watching alone. It’s unfortunate that the script often leaves too much unsaid.