Director - William Oldroyd
Cast - Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis
Rating - 4.5/5
It is painfully rare to come across a genuinely surprising film – more so when your job requires you to watch everything you can get your hands on. After a point – I’d say, a few thousand movies – there is little a filmmaker can do that doesn’t seem to you like it has been, at least partially, inspired by something that came before.
So there was a certain renewed vigour that Lady Macbeth – a film that until a few days ago existed only in the farthest fringes of my radar – left me with. It’s a pulp thriller playing dress-up; a lean, mean tale of repressed rage that has the look and feel of a Charlotte Bronte novel, but possesses a soul as dark as something Nicolas Winding Refn might create with Quentin Tarantino and Park Chan-wook watching from the wings.
It’s an unbelievably sweet deal, you’d agree; a trifecta of cinematic Shangri-La – it’s unusual as it is to witness a great film, but throw in a director making his feature debut, and a future star with only one credit to her name? It would be shameless to demand more.
In Lady Macbeth, Pugh plays Katherine, a Victorian lady trapped in a loveless – and sexless – marriage to a man far older than her. “My father,” he growls to her at night, “bought you with a piece of land not fit for a cow to graze on.” And then, he exerts what little power he has by commanding her to undress before him. He watches silently, hidden in the shadows where the lamplight can’t expose his shame, and the impolite acts he performs.
Katherine complies (what else can she do?), barely uttering a noise as the days turn into nights, and the whole excruciating exercise starts over – the listlessness, the humiliation, all cushioned by the false sense of comfort provided to her by her class.
When a business matter forces her husband to leave their sprawling farm for a few weeks, Katherine reacts to her newfound freedom as a child would. She sleeps in when she is meant to be performing household duties; she eats what she wants, when she wants; she takes long, unaccompanied walks in the fields, and opens windows that are meant to remain closed.
Before long, she develops a clandestine romantic relationship with a rugged farmhand, and begins sneaking him into her chambers at night, when prying eyes are fast asleep. It is then that you realise, perhaps at the same time as Katherine, what she really is: A caged beast set free.
So far so feminist, you’d think. But this is precisely the moment Lady Macbeth chooses to pull the rug from under your feet, push you down a flight of stairs, and smirk at you from the top.
It descends so rapidly into morally detestable depths, and settles so comfortably into ‘lady oriented’ territory, that were Pahlaj Nihalani still in charge of the Censor Board, he’d probably have a conniption, and in his final moments before fully passing out from shock, he’d order it to be burned at the stake.
Let’s make one thing very clear, though: This is not a feminist story, even though it’s objectively about the role women play in a world run by men. There is a reason it’s set in the Victorian era – a notoriously repressive period for women – although a part of me expected the final twist to reveal that it wasn’t the past after all, but an alternate reality – sort of like the Handmaid’s Tale.
Even though almost two centuries have passed, things haven’t changed as far as gender dynamics – and, admittedly, most other things – are concerned. Were the costumes to be quickly changed, and the action transported to modern India, no one would notice the difference.
It’s a rather tired observation to make, but director William Oldroyd’s film positively revels in subverting these expectations.
A big reason for how Lady Macbeth achieves this deception is because of how it looks – serene, composed, and stately. The camera alternates between a painterly stillness when Katherine is shackled indoors, and a verite jitteriness when she escapes her four walls. Oldroyd uses what appears to be natural light – flickering lamps, streaks of sunlight, and crackling fireplaces – instead of stylised shadows. It’s a deliberate attempt to bring realism to what is a morbidly fantastical story.
Of course, there are allusions to the film’s Shakespearean namesake – a cunning, conniving, but ultimately tragic character – and more obviously to Flaubert’s masterpiece, Madame Bovary. And its literary cred doesn’t end there: It’s an adaptation of a Russian short story that was first published in a magazine run by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
Like the film’s artsy aesthetic, these literary flirtations add legitimacy to Oldroyd’s con job. Lady Macbeth is a fiendishly twisted film, sure to anger some, and delight others. In other words, it’s near perfect.