William Oldroyd’s period adaptation, Lady Macbeth (2016), has a narrative thread that slowly but surely spools onto the spindle of mishap. Shakespeare’s puppeteering woman, a ghostly archetype born in the 1600s, seems destined to forever arise in new contexts. Lady Macbeth, indeed, the spot does not go out.
Alice Birch adapted Lady Macbeth from Nikolai Leskov’s book Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (1865) for Oldroyd’s piece. We follow Catherine, who enters a suffocating obligatory marriage in rural England. Her dumb-bodied (and minded) husband leaves her bored, and she begins an affair with stable hand Sebastian. As their relationship intensifies, Catherine’s dedication to Sebastian moves beyond convention to a realm of sweeping, violent romanticism.
In this rendition, Lady Macbeth is channeled by Florence Pugh with fervor and beauty. Oldroyd’s committment to theatrical texts (see his short film In Mid Wickedness , based on Howard Barker’s lay The Forty (Few Words) ) and ‘small’ settings could have rendered this piece two-dimensional, but instead, creates a hot-box atmosphere, where the small ‘stage’ of the narrative becomes extructiatingly entrapping. The narrative arc snakes from Catherine’s stifled, wifely existence to her eventual overthrow of the household, doing so by such slow increments, come the conclusion, it seems hard to find a way back to the sparse, cold spaces built in the fore. Most prominently (as with all stories featuring Lady Macbeth’s ghosts, stories about the hidden spark of indestructibility in women), are the women of the piece, Anna and Catherine. Though the pair occupy opposing social strata, the context of life for women here is cruel, rife with oppression and tilting axes of power. This is a space where the conventions of femininity to not merely pen women in, but fall with physical harm onto women’s bodies — the tugging of a hairbrush through tangled locks, the tightening of a corset… These conventions cause as much discomfort as any patriarchal, ‘disciplining blow’ across the cheek. Whilst superficially this is a tale of vengeance and liberation for Catherine, it seems equally a tale about the housemaid Anna, crushed so heavily by convention and cruelty that the closing of her already miniscule outlets for freedom are made manifest in the eventual loss of her voice. The journeys for these two women are on opposing trajectories, yet their point of intersect is explosive (and crippling) to behold.
The lack of scored soundtrack in a setting so bleak could have rendered the film sparse and daunting. Instead the rhythm supplied by the editing — beat to beat, knowing when to let an actor’s emotion roll out over a long shot, and when to shift to a new frame — and also the moments of surprising comic relief, and the shattering, lofty laugh that Catherine gives in dire moments…all give this film (that would otherwise be cold and unpalatable) lifeblood and motion. Scenes are played out in long takes — Catherine’s silky blue dress flitting from stable door to stable door — but are equally built to leave us hanging, tantalized- e.g. cutting away from Teddy’s vulnerable back above the waterfall (to push? Or not to push?). These measured cuts keep strapped to the destructive locomotion of Catherine’s influence, and the devolving threads of convention that held the household together.
To say ‘enjoy’ signifies a articular kind of engagement — instead, watching Lady Macbeth, more time is spent in distanced admiration of the structural ‘putting together’ and performances of the film, rather than an engagement with the story. That said, the film is beautifully rendered, and interrogates the bounds of love, commitment, and how far we can stretch vengeance, and well warrants a viewing.
SMALL OR BIG SCREEN: Big screen. The moments of humor are crucial in breaking this film up, and are therefore better shared with a crowd. (though, those inclined to punch popcorn-chewers in the mouth, be warned: this film is quiet.)
INCLUSIVITY: For a context not so diverse, the film includes black characters without needing to address their origin or trajectory in the plot — as all other characters are presented in the film, race or gender regardless.
DOUBLE FEATURE: Watch with Robert Eggers The VVitch (2015). Both films toy with social taboos, especially those invoked to damage women, and are visually beautiful. Both films have incredible leading actresses who demand attention, demand acknowledgement of injustices — and demand interrogation for their ethical ‘quandaries’.
The beauty of these films permeates the horror of their features events with a painterly significance, as if, these moments were lost to time but are now being refreshing, in concrete digital, to caution us again.