Lady Macbeth

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 07/21/17 07:22:08

"Out, Damned Scot. . ."
3 stars (Just Average)

Although the title might suggest otherwise, “Lady Macbeth” is not an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Scottish-themed play of some renown. Oh, it contains a couple of thematic similarities here and there but one can also find elements of the works of famed noir author James M. Cain and even a soupçon of “Tommy” thrown in for good measure—interesting, since it actually based on “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District,” a novella published by Nikolai Leskov in 1865. What it doesn’t contain, however, is a storyline that figures out how to make use of these elements as anything other than an all-too-familiar saga of lust, murder and betrayal that is enlivened by a performance in the title role by newcomer Florence Pugh that is actually stronger, wiser and more compelling than the film surrounding it.

The Victorian-era drama opens with a shot of 19-year-old Katherine (Pugh) on her wedding day but one look at the expression on her face—a combination of incredulity and horror—is all we need to know to understand that this is not a joyous occasion for her by a long shot. We soon discover that she was sold by her father, as part of a deal involving a small patch of land, to the aging and monstrous Boris (Christopher Fairbank) so that she can marry his glumly pathetic son Alexander (Paul Hilton) and bear him a child. Alas, Alexander seems as unenthusiastic with the marriage as Katherine—he refuses to consummate the marriage and, when he isn’t ordering her to stay inside the house (located smack dab in the middle of the dreary section of nowhere), he all but ignores her. Of course, Boris immediately blames Katherine for his son’s lack of interest and begins treating her even more cruelly than before.

Things begin to change for Katherine when both her husband and father-in-law are called away on business and she is left behind with the staff of the house. One day, she meets up with hunky house groomsman James (Cosmo Jarvis) and sparks immediately fly between them. Before long, the two are carrying on regularly in the house and Katherine experiences genuine passion for what is presumably the first time in her life. The affair, in fact, unlocks something within her and, having gotten a taste for it, she will go to great lengths to protect her newfound feeling of fulfillment. As a result, when Boris and the late-coming Alexander finally return home and try to start up with her again, it doesn’t end well for them. Things appear to be rosy for Katherine and James—all the loose ends appear to be tied up and the only person who can finger Katherine for one of the murders, the always-watchful handmaid Anna (Naomi Ackie), is so horrified by her own inadvertent complicity in the crime that she has been struck mute. However, it turns out that Alexander had a few secret of his own and when one arrives on Katherine’s doorstep, she finds herself contemplating even more horrific acts as Sebastian looks on stunned and horrified at what has been unleashed.

I have not read the original novella, so I cannot say with any certainty how much it was changed or altered on its way to the big screen. One big problem that I have with the film is that it doesn’t really have a strong fix on who Katherine is. In the early scenes, when we see her struggling to adapt to her new circumstances while dealing with the cruelties of her husband and father-in-law and the occasional bits of rebellion—a muttered aside, long walks outside in Alexander’s absence and shucking her bed clothes in order to sleep nude. When she shifts from passive-aggressive to downright homicidal, the move doesn’t quite work because we don’t get a satisfying sense of what it was this particular incident that finally set her off and most of her grim misdeeds later on feel like creaky plot developments than anything with plausible psychological underpinnings. The handling of the character of Anna, the maid, is equally problematic. At first, she seems like an interesting character as well, one who is forced into bearing witness to Katherine’s misfortunes but at a certain point, she also becomes just another pawn in the screenplay’s game with her muteness serving no other purpose except to set up a dark final twist that feels like a discarded denouement for a lesser Coen Brothers joint.

The most compelling element of “Lady Macbeth” by far is the performance given by British actress Florence Pugh. To date, she has only been in a tiny handful of films and was a total unknown to be as I sat down to watch the film and discovered a star in the making. She is endlessly charismatic, to be sure, and right from the very start, she has the audience in her hand to almost the same degree that her character has Sebastien. At the same time, despite her young age, her performance is so fearsome and convincing that even when Katherine begins performing acts that even the most devoted feminist might find to be somewhat beyond the pale, she sells those moments to such a degree that I found myself responding to her increasingly cruel methods of getting and maintaining her own personal happiness by thinking to myself “Well, she isn’t that bad!”

Ultimately, Pugh’s performance is not quite good enough to make “Lady Macbeth” worth watching—except maybe in a few years when Pugh becomes a big star and people go back to look at her early days—but if you do find yourself watching it for whatever reason, it is good enough to make you think, at least for a while, that the film as a whole, is better than it actually is.

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