MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Lady Macbeth’ is a rock and roll period drama of no parallel

Bolstered by an Earth-shaking performance from Florence Pugh and a bite far more vicious than any other film of its kind

| July 28, 2017

Period dramas are not foreign to praise, but they do have a tendency to become a bit rote without a fair bit of innovation, to which many filmmakers come up to the challenge for. Each year, there’s one period drama that stands above the rest as a decidedly new take on a sometimes tired sub-genre of films. Last year, Whit Stillman’s “Love & Friendship” took the cake as the most creative and innovative take on the period drama by crafting a period comedy out of a lesser-known Jane Austen novella. With its minimalist approach, witty banter and one of the best performances of the year from Kate Beckinsale, this PG-rated, innocent period drama stole the show in simplicity. 2017 has struggled in finding period pieces to really stick, and while there have been some good ones in the form of “The Beguiled” and “The Lost City of Z,” but has been hankered down with films like “My Cousin Rachel” and “Live by Night” that have prevented the genre from really succeeding in 2017.

But where these movies lacked, “Lady Macbeth” has come in to take the crown.

In 1865 rural England, Katherine (Florence Pugh) is a young woman trapped in an arranged marriage with Alexander (Paul Hilton), an older, cruel, commandeering husband. Distraught at the state of her life, Katherine attempts making friends with the house servant, Anna (Naomi Ackie). When her husband goes away with his even crueler father, Boris (Christopher Fairbank), Katherine finds herself alone with her thoughts for the first time since the wedding. When she discovers Anna being tormented by the groundsmen, she meets Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), a cocky, attractive young man of mixed race that Katherine looks upon in disdain at first. When her curiosity with Sebastian is piqued, Sebastian makes the first sexual advance against Katherine, to which she reciprocated voraciously. Starting an open and illicit affair with Sebastian, Katherine finds herself in hot water when word among the servants begins to spread, making the means for how much Katherine and Sebastian are willing to sacrifice for their love into check.

From the start, the feeling that “Lady Macbeth” exudes in every pixel of itself feels different. This is not your mother’s Jane Austen period piece, but a film with such a voracious bite that it nearly begins to feel vicious as the film goes on. At first, the film almost feels like a feminist twist on a classic story of domestic suppression, but I came to find that “Lady Macbeth” has so much more up its sleeves than just a simple political statement, this is a period drama with its middle finger in the air, asking nothing of its audience but to suspend expectation.

Pugh is an absolute revelation as Katherine, delivering possibly the best female performance (or any performance for that matter) of any film this year so far. This is a complex, infinitely interesting, morally maddening and increasingly frustrating character that’s absolutely fascinating to watch unfold on screen in Pugh’s subtle, intense and Earth-shaking performance. Katherine is a character that audiences initially want to like, because her exposure to violent and oppressive misogyny places her in a sympathetic position, but the film finds ways to detail the moral complexity that comes with her newfound sense of power with Sebastian, and how this might in turn skew her into exercising more societal power over those she interacts with as lady of the house.

Another performance worth touching on is Ackie’s portrayal of Anna, which fed into one of my favorite things about “Lady Macbeth:” its refusal to conveniently ignore the role that not only violent misogyny and systemic racism played into 19th century English society. Nowadays, most period pieces simply focus on a singular story of people in fancy old dresses, but “Lady Macbeth” has no issue presenting the reality of a world where women were suppressed and people of color were degraded into house work not much different than slavery. The way in which the characters, primarily Katherine, interact with Anna is a really interesting touch on the film. It portrays the sense of distance that even the kindest of “employers” (because “master” is technically incorrect for the time period) maintain the societal hierarchy put in place by their positions. While Katherine might act relatively kind to Anna in the film, Katherine still instills the sense between master-servant relations. Katherine might be oppressed as a woman, but as a white woman, she remains in much higher standing than Anna. While Anna and Sebastian might both be people of color, Sebastian holds higher standing than Anna in his manhood. Later in the film, we’re introduced to two other characters of color in much higher financial standing, which actually places them closer to the status of Katherine rather than that of Sebastian and Anna. As the film progresses, this dynamic of social hierarchy is tested and detailed really nicely with the increasingly volatility of the film’s events and characters.

“Lady Macbeth” is not for the faint of heart, as its R-rating might show. This is a film that deals with the worst inhibitions and choices people can find themselves giving into, and it doesn’t shy away from sex, nudity and violence. This is a film that’s brutally blunt and shockingly cold in its view of humanity, but one that packs a powerful punch when the film’s somewhat traditional aesthetic approach to a period drama is shown. While the film is absolutely beautiful, director William Oldroyd keeps things simple by making a traditionally beautiful period piece with beautiful costumes and beautiful sets. This expectation and standard of beauty is maintained throughout the film, as when things get darker and more malevolent, the standard approach of a period drama stays in check, making the overall effect much more unsettling than one might expect from a film like this. It’s a film of great beauty, but one that uses its budgetary restrictions (shot on a budget of £500,000; roughly $660,000) in its favor to sway audience reaction. It’s quite clever and incredibly effective.

While the film is traditionally beautiful in its visuals, the film is stark and unnerving aurally, as the film only features three brief moments of music throughout the film. Once for its opening title card, once in the middle during an important moment and once at the end of the film. This stark silence is one that casts a somber and almost malicious shadow over the film to convince you that this film is not normal, nor does it seek to be. This makes the entirety of “Lady Macbeth” unnerving to say the least, uncomfortable at many times.

Clocking in at only 89 minutes with credits, it’s hard to imagine a film like this shoving such a story into such a small amount of time, but “Lady Macbeth” moves at a breakneck pace that allows for the film to feel much more disorienting than it actually is. Whenever anything bad happens in our lives, it sweeps us into a whirlwind where we lose track of our surroundings and time, something that Oldroyd finds a way to transfer over to film in such an interesting way that for once I’m not wishing a film were longer.

The future of film lies in the innovations that indie film brings to the forefront, not what some studio says we should like. In fact, the reason that something like “Dunkirk” is so successful with such a respected director is that Christopher Nolan takes huge risks with big budgets. He acts like an indie filmmaker with a studio paycheck, and that’s what brings audiences back in again and again. In contrast, “Lady Macbeth” is an absolutely brilliant film that doesn’t shy from sheer ferocity in its story. There seems to be a bit of backlash against the film due to the fact that the protagonist is not traditionally “likable,” which I am going to call straight bullshit on. Katherine is not a character that exudes likability, nor does Pugh ever try to go for that in her performance. The idea that protagonists have to be the good guys is a trope that studios pull far too often that makes the final expectations in a film like “Lady Macbeth” inherently skewed when audiences find out that the female they’re forced to watch on screen isn’t a perfect image of what a Victorian woman should be. “Lady Macbeth” is not a nice film, and if you can’t handle that, perhaps this is not the film for you. For those who don’t mind about manners and friendliness, “Lady Macbeth” is a lot to take in, but one that’s infinitely gut-wrenching, nerve-wracking, and completely masterful in each of its clever choices.

5/5

Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions

Directed by: William Oldroyd
Starring: Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis, Paul Hilton, Naomi Ackie, and Christopher Fairbank.
Runtime: 89 minutes
Rating: R for some disturbing violence, strong sexuality/nudity and language.
Now playing exclusively at Regal Park Terrace and Ballantyne Village.

Creative England, BBC Films and BFI present, in association with Oldgarth Media, a Sixty-Six Features and iFeatures production, “Lady Macbeth”

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Category:Arts and Entertainment, Film

Hunter Heilman Hunter is the current editor-in-chief for The Niner Times. He is a senior Communications major who wishes he were a dog and wants to pet your dog if you have one. Hunter has been a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA) since August 2015. Hunter has been the editor-in-chief since May 2016. Please do not hesitate to shoot him an e-mail at editor@ninertimes.com for any questions or concerns and he'll be sure to get back to you ASAP.

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Hunter Heilman Hunter is the current editor-in-chief for The Niner Times. He is a senior Communications major who wishes he were a dog and wants to pet your dog if you have one. Hunter has been a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA) since August 2015. Hunter has been the editor-in-chief since May 2016. Please do not hesitate to shoot him an e-mail at editor@ninertimes.com for any questions or concerns and he'll be sure to get back to you ASAP.

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