Florence Pugh as Katherine creates a mid-19th Century femme fatale
Lady Macbeth (2016) is set in rural north England in the mid-19th Century. The movie’s opening scene shows Katherine’s (Florence Pugh) face covered by a white wedding veil, looking back, as if glancing at the viewer. The lack of importance in Katherine’s surroundings gives her a strong sense of presence, yet it foreshadows the loneliness of her coming marital life. Prevented by her husband from leaving the house, Katherine is trapped in a suffocating environment where she is seen as a mere adornment and child-bearer. Alexander (Paul Hilton), Katherine’s much older husband, does not show any sexual interest in her. When he leaves the house for reasons unknown to Katherine, she ends up having an affair with one of the men who works on the land, Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis).
The story may remind viewers of Madame Bovary, but do not fool yourself, for Lady Macbeth takes on a very different, dark course. Based on Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District by Russian writer Nikolai Leskov, the movie can go from quietness to turmoil in a very short period of time. Lady Macbeth‘s narrative does not rely too much on dialogue to tell Katherine’s story. The setting, lighting, and solitude around Katherine’s environment can be more expressive than words. The lack of cheerful tones in the house creates a dreary habitat, which focuses the attention on Katherine, and at the same time indicates a state of boredom. The constant silence in the house turns Katherine’s own breathing into the movie’s soundtrack, showing how suffocating her life is in that patriarchal social system.
At this point of the movie, there is no way out; the viewer is also stuck in the house with Katherine.
The way Katherine finds freedom to love Sebastian is by suppressing any compassion and taking down anyone who seems to threaten her affair. When she starts taking action, the viewer understands the reference to Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth, a woman conflicted between masculinity and femininity in a time where being ruthless was seen as a male attribute. Katherine is a modern character lost in a rustic, old environment. The cinematography complies with that, adopting an approach not often used in period dramas, which brings us closer to Katherine.
The movie is William Oldroyd’s debut feature film, and Alice Birch’s debut as a screenwriter. As for the actress Florence Pugh, one thought follows the viewer around: “Who is this girl and why have I not seen her before?” Her performance as Katherine creates a dense mid-19th Century femme fatale who leads her lover – and the viewer – into deadly situations.
As the story unfolds, Katherine’s silence is replaced by the silence of a speechless audience.
Director: William Oldroyd
Screenplay: Alice Birch
Genre: Drama film
Running Time: 1h 30m