Hello, everyone! I recently watched William Oldroyd’s bloody drama Lady Macbeth. I expected a beautiful period piece with murder and mayhem, and what I got was just that and an intoxicating glimpse into a teenage girl’s psyche. I haven’t been this terrified of a teenage girl’s intentions since I watched Ellen Page in Hard Candy. And in fact, Lady‘s Katherine and Hard’s Hayley aren’t so different. They both enjoy having control over men, using their sexuality like a weapon, and lying through their teeth. Coincidentally, both characters might verge on being psychopaths. And in a cinematic world full of Patrick Batemans and Hannibal Lecters, they’re a much needed breath of fresh air.
Synopsis: Sold to a man twice her age on a lonely northern estate, sixteen-year-old Katherine finds her new life depressing and confining. Her husband and father-in-law belittle her and demand she bear an heir, even though her husband shows no signs of wanting to consummate the marriage. But when he leaves the estate, Katherine begins an affair with Sebastian, a stablehand, and soon turns to desperate, depraved measures to keep him as her lover.
My take: Some films show their hands right away through exposition, but Lady Macbeth lays out a trail of breadcrumbs and beckons for you to follow. The movie presents itself like a mystery-flavor lollipop. Wrapped in the trappings of a Jane Eyre inspired period piece, from the windswept manor, to the cruel husband, to the meek and naive protagonist merely wishing for happiness, Lady lures the audience in with familiarity, then leads them to the slaughter.
Oldroyd is subtle about his tricks. Katherine’s true personality unfolds in layers, with enough nuance to leave us guessing at her true intentions. When she interacts with her maid, Anna, is she being needlessly harsh, or just demanding? When she comes across Anna being harassed and bullied for being black, does her inaction stem from the inexperience of her youth, or a complete lack of empathy? And when she starts an affair with Sebastian, Anna’s tormentor, is Katherine being led by her youthful desire, or being pulled like a magnet to Sebastian’s cruelty?
At times Oldroyd’s subtlety leaves too much unexplained. The rift between Katherine and her husband, for instance, could benefit from more clarity. It was difficult for me to understand why Katherine’s husband would be so cold to a girl he’s chosen to marry, especially when we discover he has a son by another woman who he loves. The secondary characters are too shadowy to really grasp. They function as blocks for Katherine to sharpen her knives. A lot of their ambiguity could be down to acting choices, too, but the sparseness of the script makes attempting to understand the motivation of a character like Anna, who besides Katherine is always central to the plot’s catastrophes, almost impossible. I wish Oldroyd had given the audience more insight into the minds of the secondary characters, because when a movie revolves so strongly around a character like Katherine’s reactionary decisions, it would make sense to provide more background into the other characters responsible for those reactions.
Actress Florence Pugh delivers a star-making turn as Katherine. With cherubic cheeks and wily eyes, Pugh inhabits Katherine completely. She’s the kind of actor who has the ability to carry a character’s lifetime of experiences in only their expressions. When she’s onscreen, the rest of the actors fade away into the wallpaper.
And speaking of wallpaper, the film’s production design is gorgeous, the quiet type of gorgeous that you only start to notice once the actors stop talking. I could be too easily pleased in this category, I mean, give me an old manor with big windows and high ceilings and I’m your girl. But Lady supplies such simple artistry. Put an indigo-clad Katherine on a blazing yellow couch and suddenly she becomes like a living version of “The Girl With The Pearl Earring.” There’s no higher acclaim I can give to a movie’s production design than to say it looks like a painting, and Lady is a moving Vermeer.
But besides the movie’s beauty and Pugh’s stunning performance, what kept me hooked was Katherine. We know nothing about who she was before she married her husband, so for all we know, violence could be in her nature. But if not, Lady‘s boldest accomplishment is to present a cold-blooded female murderer and not absolve her through her femininity. I loved watching Katherine, but I wasn’t rooting for her. She’s not a heroine, nor an anti-hero. She’s a thoroughly human protagonist. Oldroyd doesn’t press us to have sympathy for her, but he also doesn’t want us to hate her. What Katherine seeks is understanding. Whether one can fully understand Katherine by the end of the film depends on the viewer, but Lady Macbeth makes the attempt worth it.