Too often period pieces are about nothing but themselves – dusty time capsules that seek to recreate a time gone by, along with all the era’s quaint, outdated conventions and social mores. William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth is different. In keeping the year unchanged but updating the setting of Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 novel, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, and taking the story from East to West – specifically, from Russia to Great Britain at its colonial peak – director Oldroyd and screenwriter Alice Birch are deliberately holding a mirror up to modern Western society and its own issues with gender and race.
Timely is the word here. Lady Macbeth first screened at the Toronto International Film Festival back in September but now, with America’s sexual and racial politics suddenly set back decades following the vote on November 8th, this Victorian-era melodrama feels crucially challenging.
At first, Lady Macbeth sets out its stall as a sympathetic (if severe) look at how women and people of color in the 19th century were treated as if cuts of meat, objects to be abused and effectively (and literally) purchased by white male masters. Florence Pugh’s Katherine ostensibly starts out our hero, a shy young woman sold for marriage to Paul Hilton’s Alexander, the alcoholic heir to a fortune made by his mill-owner father, Boris (Christopher Fairbank, relishing his character’s venom).
It’s immediately clear Katherine was not bought for love: when he can bear to be in the same room as his new bride, and not away at work or visiting his illegitimate mixed-race child, Alexander can only drunkenly castigate Katherine, the woman his father procured merely so he could continue the bloodline with a proper (white) heir.
The brutishness from husband and father-in-law, combined with her enforced isolation (the film is largely a chamber piece, Katherine like a doting housewife required to wait alone in the family home for long, quiet stretches) drives Katherine into the arms of stable-hand Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis). The tryst is an act of rebellion by two people considered little more than property, with Katherine in particular taking pleasure fraternizing with someone so insultingly coarse and lowborn. When their affair is exposed, Katherine hatches a scheme to rid herself of both Alexander and Boris. It doesn’t go perfectly to plan, of course – cinematic convention dictates hardly anyone ever gets away with murder clean – and soon Katherine is resorting to cruel measures in order to save her own skin.
Without revealing too much here, before long Lady Macbeth begins to turn from a tale of female empowerment into the story of a white woman of influence using her position to subjugate the only people deemed more lowly than women during this period: people of color. As it turns out, the word of white and wealthy trumps black and poor – like Sebastian, family maid Anna (Naomi Ackie) and Alexander’s bastard son, all of whom are black or mixed-race – even when said word comes from a woman.
By the time Lady Macbeth has shifted gear to become this other story, we as an audience are already complicit. At first we root for Katherine as she takes back control of her life from vicious men, but it soon becomes clear that she’s no take-action heroine, rather just a sociopath prepared like the men in her life to use her privilege to ruthless advantage.
More biting and less formal than most period pieces, Lady Macbeth was likely influenced by Andrea Arnold’s raw 2011 take on Wuthering Heights moreso than any lavish BBC period drama, embracing its less than £500,000 budget to realize an austere, minimalistic authentic style. Oldroyd’s film, like Arnold’s, takes a revisionist look at moneyed life in the Victorian era. The actors wander not through spotless stately homes conversing drily in RP, but through cold, dark interiors speaking banalities in regional Northern English dialects. When Katherine does venture outside, there is no endless, nostalgic Jane Austen summer, just the chilly desolation of endless grey-brown scenery.
The unobtrusive Oldroyd, a former theater director, draws impressively un-showy turns from his cast, but it’s Pugh’s breakout performance that’s Lady Macbeth‘s callous centerpiece, Pugh that’s most in tune with the film’s darkly ironic humor. Katherine doesn’t evolve as a character over the course of the film, but rather dares to reveal ever deeper depths of malice as she grows in confidence. It’s to the actor’s credit then that even from the character’s virginal first scenes, when she’s seen obediently stood shivering naked in a corner as her husband pleasures himself, there are hints from Pugh at a terrible coldness underneath. When we finally see how far Katherine will go, we’re totally convinced, if horrified to have ever been charmed into taking her side in the first place.
Lady Macbeth begins as a biting tale of female empowerment but slowly reveals itself to be something much crueler. Period pieces rarely feel this contemporary.