Lady Macbeth: the titular role of William Oldroyd’s fierce new feature isn’t actually based on Shakespeare’s badass female powerhouse, but rather Nikolai Leskov’s novella highlighting the treatment of women in 19th century European society. That being said, countless parallels can be drawn between the two.
This stirring screenplay by Alice Birch shines a new light on the uncontrollably evil anti-heroine from Shakespeare’s classic play. Despite lacking humanity, rationality, a first name and on-stage-death, Lady Macbeth is often crowned one of the most powerful female characters in English Literature. Though, in the end, the motivation behind her deadly wrong-doings will usually be surpassed by the madness of the male lead. This is no longer the case (hurrah!) thanks to the stunning performance from Florence Pugh who revolutionises the legendary leading lady.
From the opening moment of the film, cameras are close up on Katherine; a seemingly submissive teenage bride in 1865 England, forced to wed a much older man. Whilst following her life in this loveless marriage, an insight is given into the strict role that 19th century European women were burdened with. Imprisoned, lonely and mistreated by all those closest to her, it’s easy to comprehend the triggers of Katherine’s killer-queen behaviour.
As the thrilling narrative progresses, we wonder whether it’d be possible for a woman in Katherine’s situation to follow any route other than murderous madness. Bullied by her father-in-law, abandoned by her husband, and even mistreated by Anna the mute maid (brushing, scrubbing and lacing her up too harshly), Katherine falls into the arms of a rebellious workman on the estate. Quickly becoming besotted, she pursues a burning love affair which breaks both social and racial boundaries of the time.
Amongst these explicit themes of violence, race and class, is a subtle suggestion of women’s sexual repression during the 19th century. Drop-dead-gorgeous, nevertheless abusive-woman-beater, Sebastian is the only choice of lover Katherine has. Even though she holds an affectionately fanatical flame for him and develops a deeper relationship than what goes down in the bedroom, she’s still shunned for having a sex life. Yet, her husband faces zero punishment for identical acts of infidelity – no wonder she ends up bashing his head in until he dies a bloody death.
Feminist vengeance and sexual empowerment aside, full sympathy can’t be expressed for Katherine whose murderous deeds get progressively merciless. Subverting expectations right up until the end, she doesn’t entirely bear a resemblance to her Shakespearean counterpart. Instead of insanity and suicide, Katherine remains ruthless in the final moments of the film, denying any wrong-doing and provoking chilling thoughts of what is still to come.
Words: Natalie Ann Boyd