“You will remain indoors, with your prayer book.”
There’s a recurrent image of a woman sat on a settee, her face concealing all as she stares into the distance; seemingly staring defiantly at us through the camera lens. She is bored but not certainly broken. She is Lady Macbeth. Well, sort of… She is actually Lady Katherine (Pugh), a character based on the central figure of Nikolai Leskov’s story Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, the title of which was inspired by the character from Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1606). She may not be the same Lady Macbeth but she’s no less manipulative, no less calculating and no less deadly.
Pugh gives an excellent performance as a woman who cannot and will not confirm to the subordinate role that is expected of her. Both her husband and her father-in-law will speak only to her with demands or orders. On her wedding night, which goes unconsummated, she it told she must stay within the house and not go outside. When both men leave on business it is clear that she will make the most of the freedom that this allows. It is during these early stages of the film that we grow somewhat fond Katherine and find her pluckiness endearing. She is unlike any female figure we have seen before in a period drama. She has an edge that makes her far more different and far more dangerous than that of say Lizzie Bennett or Jane Eyre. Her refusal to submit feels almost anachronistic, her words and actions make her appear contemporaneous – a woman born before her time; something which seems profoundly empowering.
It soon becomes clear that all is not as it appears. As things begin to play out Katherine is clearly not the resolute ingénue we may have initially viewed her as, nor is she necessarily the refreshing spark in a stifling setting we grew too warm to. Instead there is something downright disturbed about her. Like some of film and literature’s greatest femme fatales she makes us doubt our initial allegiances far too late, at which point we’ve already been forced into becoming her reluctant accomplices. A dichotomy quickly forms – just how much of her behaviour can be justified and just how much of it is premeditated?
What makes Lady Macbeth so memorable is its utilisation of period conventions, a framework of expected, but reconstructed with a deceptive amount of cruelty that is revealed with audacious skill and decisive choices. What is primarily a character study allows for much exploration of tensions that occurred within 19th Century England to varying degrees of plausibility. Shifts in Katherine’s character seem somewhat sudden; the very temperament that at first seemed refreshing soon becomes distorted and instead her characterisation conforms to the trope of dangerous hysterical woman, with nuance being abandoned in favour of destruction.
However, this is down more to script and direction that Pugh’s performance. Aged only 19 at time of filming she possesses a screen presence that is ethereal in terms of world-weary cynicism. In the early stages, with only a facial expression or look she reveals so much about how she feels trapped in a marriage to a man who bought her. The dinner sequence of a drunk Katherine vs her father-in-law is a particular highlight. Even as events spiral and we start to realise the darkness lurking under the surface, Pugh’s performance is immensely subtle and nuanced. It’s an authentic yet attention grabbing – a dead cert of one to watch.
The events within Lady Macbeth don’t escalate quickly. Like its central protagonist they are methodical yet driven by emotion, carefully constructed with dark depths, supremely watchable and haunting long after the credits roll.
‘Lady Macbeth’ opened in UK cinemas on April 28th.
Year: 2017 Runtime: 89 minutes Dir: William Oldroyd