'Lady Macbeth' dispassionately dramatizes violence in response to repression
The period drama Lady Macbeth is based not on Shakespeare's character but the one central to Nikolai Leskov's 1865 novella Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. She is, however, appropriately named, a woman who becomes a single-minded killer without a discernible conscience. Set in 1865 in a remote, northern English estate, the film begins as seventeen-year-old Katherine weds Alexander Lester.
On their wedding night and subsequent nights, Alexander has Katherine strip, though no sexual union follows. Humiliated, perplexed, and trapped, Katherine is forbidden to leave the quiet, dreary house, even to get some air on the heath. She's become an isolated prisoner, her only company her mute maid Anna. After Alexander and his equally cruel father-in-law leave on business, Katherine breaks loose with a torrid affair with the groomsman Sebastian. Succeeding events will involve several murders with a variety of complications not spoiled here.
It is beautifully lit and shot by Ari Wegner, who creates a pressure cooker atmosphere anchored exclusively on an expressionless Katherine centered in the frame. The dominance of symmetrical shots and the compositions with this corseted, constrained woman dwarfed by heavy wooden furniture adds to the feeling of an immutable world that offers no escape. No added music relieves the stifling intensity thus created.
Director William Oldroyd and writer Alice Birch wisely choose not to sensationalize the killings, emphasizing, instead, their cold, dispassionate execution. Are we to infer this is the retaliatory excess of such complete subjugation of this woman? The return of the repressed? Katherine cannot even participate in the men's dinner conversation, though, ordered to sit quietly, she can't even leave the room. Are we to pity or root for her? Is this more than a plea for humane behavior and against class oppression? If so, should Katherine not treat her black maid Anna as more than a servant?
Katherine would, in fact, be a more interesting character if there were some psychological complexity explored. Some have called this a nice change from the suffering female victim, but the other side of the coin shows a sociopath at work, not a great recommendation though Florence Pugh delivers a flawless, strong performance. At Landmark's Plaza Frontenac Cinema.