Film Review: Lady Macbeth.

Film Review Series by Lance Sinclair.

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This week State Library of Queensland’s cinephile, Lance Sinclair, reviews Lady Macbeth, directed by William Oldroyd and staring Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis and Naomi Ackie.

This review reveals major plot points for Lady Macbeth.

Image from film Lady Macbeth, directed by William Oldroyd, produced by BBC Films et al, streamed on Kanopy database.


The thing about oppression is that it frequently brings about its own demise. The controlling tools of denial and restriction, like taking a young woman, purchasing her as a piece of property and forcing her into a life of subservience as a vessel for male offspring will result in a counterbalancing of chaos. It is a form of behaviour that teaches a savagery to those under its rule, or perhaps unlocks a savagery that was always there.

The 2016 film Lady Macbeth, a bracingly vicious take on the source novel “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District” by Nikolai Leskov (which since its publication in 1865 has been adapted into a ballet, an opera, and three feature films – one of which is also currently available through Kanopy: Siberian Lady Macbeth) takes the central concept of the vengeance of the oppressed and spins it into a study of personal darkness that simplifies the original text and streamlines it into a kind of contemporary, minimalist state-of-the-art study of darkness and how it waits to creep in.

Florence Pugh plays Katherine Lester, the new bride of Alexander, a powerful and deeply unpleasant wretch of a man, seemingly disrespected by all those around him despite his lordship over the estate that he shares with his father Boris and a small clutch of workers who tend to the house and its surrounding lands. Literally bought to produce a new son for the stern Lester bloodline, the reality of Katherine’s new life, in which she is forbidden to leave the house and constantly restricted not only by the confines of the walls, philosophies and girdles that bind her, sinks in quickly. This house is a trap. Beautiful in its own austere fashion, but a trap, nonetheless.

With the merciful departure of the two cruel Lester men as they attend to emergency business in the city, Katherine is free to find solace in the wild terrain of the moors surrounding her home, and also in the brutish company of Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), one of the local workers – a sneering, bragging and craven man we are first introduced to as he humiliates Anna (Naomi Ackie), Katherine’s personal maid and the closest to a confidante she has in her life. Here the camera can roam freely, in its own seasick naturalism, as opposed to the constricting formalism of the property interior, where it remains locked down, all right angles and symmetrical compositions.

All who rebel aren’t necessarily saints. Katherine has no issues with lording over the workers that toil in her husband’s service. Anna is under her boot just as she is below Alexander, and quickly Katherine’s tentative friendship with the housemaid shifts uncomfortably close to a master/slave dynamic. Her cruelty is just a wilder strain of the oppression visited on the household by Boris.

As the patriarchs return home, first the crueler Boris and then his weakling son, Katherine’s rebellion, seemingly half improvised, becomes a literal life-and-death game for control of all that we see in the confines of this story. Perhaps less of a game and more a simple weighing up of who is truly capable of something close to real evil.  As Katherine visits grave misfortune on all who impede her, the quavering of a teacup becomes as foreboding as approaching thunder. Florence Pugh, so wonderful as a woman underestimated by all around her in Midsommar, offers in this a far darker and equally powerful study of the liberation inherent in brutally disappointing those who never cared for you. It’s exhilarating.

Eventually, by following her truth, she is rejected by all around her. Even the moors and their endless space begin to resemble a larger prison. Sebastian, such a swaggering filthy show pony at the film’s beginning, will be revealed as sorely lacking in his attempts to live a more complex, tenebrous life than his previous role a mere filthy lout. Cosmo Jarvis, so effective at projecting a kind of frightening emptiness in the recent Calm with Horses, is equally good here, stunned as a fish plucked from its waters.

Sin builds upon sin – ever increasing wickedness to bury past misdeeds and we’re lost along with our cypher Katherine in even attempting to balance the scales of monstrous behaviour.

As we leave Katherine, finally elevated to the ruler of this tiresome, haunted house – alone, hated and a figure of fear – the question of whether she has bested her trials, become the self she was always supposed to be, or been devoured by forces too old and corrupt to ever be shifted is left to us. The thing about oppression is that it too often creates new oppressors to wield the crop, to sit at the head of the table, to feed the resentment and ill intent of those who fear them. The new queen has arrived.

Further reading

  • MAKING A MURDERER. Weston, Kelli; 2017. Sight and Sound; Vol. 27 (5), pp.34-36. (article)
  • Crimes of Passion. Thomson, Patricia, 2017. American Cinematographer; Vol. 98 (7), pp.52-59. (article)
  • 'Lady Macbeth' Florence Pugh on corsets, Victorians and the WWE. Thompson, Gary; 2017, July 20. TCA Regional News. (article)
  • Florence Pugh makes complicated character 'loveable' in 'Lady Macbeth'. Covert, Colin; 2017, July 28. TCA News Service. (article
  • British Indie Kudos Make Space for the Emerging Generation. Barraclough, Leo; 2017. Variety; Vol. 338 (8), pp.133-134. (article)
  • Directory of world cinema Britain. Bell, Emma and Mitchell, Neil (eds); 2012. Bristol : Intellect Books. (ebook)

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