If you’re worried that you’re just not miserable and depressed enough, Lady Macbeth could be the movie for you! It’s safe to say this is not a jolly film, although it is one that some will find pretty powerful, while others will feel it’s oddly pointless (despite its feminist undertones) and nihilistic.
In mid-19th Century England, Katherine (Florence Pugh) is literally sold into marriage to a country gentleman, but soon discovers her husband has no interest in her (in fact seems to despise her), and he father-in-law is cruel and has no issues degrading women.
When both men are away, Katherine embarks on a passionate affair with labourer Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis). As she matures into her role as lady of the house, she begins to manipulate, control and perhaps even kill in order to have control over her own life.
From the title you might have thought this would be Shakespeare’s Macbeth but from a female angle. Instead it’s based on Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 novella Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (which Shostakovich turned into an opera in the 1930s). The manipulation and power-play of Macbeth may have inspired the central character, but the plot itself is very different.
It’s a very quiet film, which for its first hour moves at a rather glacial pace. Indeed, the first 60 minutes are largely just a rather slow and dark setup to explain the last half an hour, when most of the action takes place and things get far more dramatic and interesting. For some though, despite the depths the characters sink to towards the end, it will be too little too late due to the slow pace of what’s gone before.
It’s not even just the pace, it’s the fact that there’s so little dialogue or sense of connection between the character, as well so many long, static (admittedly pretty) shots, that it fails to really make the characters come alive. In the special features, the director talks about how much they pared down the dialogue in the movie, but they took it to the point where it becomes an affectation rather than something that actually helps the movie. It makes the whole thing seem rather contrived, not helped by the fact that so much of the movie seems to be a bunch of characters trying to outdo each other in how much of an asshole they can be.
It’s a little bit Pasolini in that regard, mixed in with some Wuthering Heights (particularly Andrea Arnold’s 2011 film version) and then a descent into rather extreme melodrama by the end. As mentioned, some will find the whole thing very powerful, especially as it goes to dark places and actions that most films avoid as they’re seen as so unforgivable. It’s a brave movie that attempts to bring understanding and perhaps even empathy to such things, but perhaps if it had lived a little more in film reality than film theory, it might have worked better and not felt quite so much as if it’s more a movie for the creators than the audience.
Running through there are also hints towards wanting to say something about feminism, power, economics and race, but it never gets all that far with it – unless you fancy going along with the idea that the only way to succeed is to be even worse than your oppressors.
Overall Verdict: Dark, dismal and often pretty depressing. There are things to praise about Lady Macbeth, but ultimately its self-satisfaction and failure to really get under the skin of its character makes it a lesser movie than it might have been.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac