“Lady Macbeth” doesn’t take place in Scotland, but an un-romanticized Victorian England, in which charming orphans and blushing debutantes are nowhere to be found. Nor does it star a ruthless, calculating Queen, but the young Katherine (Florence Pugh), who’s getting there.
Katherine has been wedded off to a stranger, as was one time the custom—and still is, in some parts of the world. New to her lodgings, she is repeatedly asked if she is cold, to which she replies in the negative. She is, of course, lying. She is cold, because everything around her is cold. And as it happens to be, this is the optimal temperature for the germination of a Lady Macbeth. Through Katherine, the film investigates this unique and extreme evolution—and the oppressive conditions required for it to take place—with an objective, scientific eye.
Part of what makes “Lady Macbeth” effective—and possibly ineffective for others—is its third-person approach to Katherine, who remains a mystery throughout, despite being the film’s centerpiece. Only her actions are known to us, and through them, we’re meant to know her. But, because we’re kept at such a distance, she might just as well have been a Lady Macbeth from the very beginning, albeit muzzled. By not providing an answer, William Oldroyd, director, makes Katherine a far more textured character than if her arch was a clear progression.
In that same manner, Pugh presents Katherine as a thinking, attentive woman, but hardly “up to no good.” In her early days with her new husband, Katherine’s life is dull, with variety coming only in the form of “which wall shall I stare at today?” Luxuries include routine meals and sitting on the furniture, but then again, the cat can say the same. Therefore, when Katherine first begins exhibiting subversive behavior, it appears to be nothing more than lashing out—a last-ditch effort to reclaim some sense of independence. But as the film goes on, independence becomes the least of her wants, and her behavior becomes successively deplorable. With little dialogue or physicality to draw upon—silence and posture being admirable qualities in the era’s women—Pugh maneuvers this inner odyssey remarkably well.
As this is based on a short story by Nikolai Leskov, it should as no surprise that the film is short and concise, with little more than the bare necessities. But it didn’t have to be. I would have liked to live with the characters a bit longer. We move so quickly from one instance to another that actions don’t have time to reverberate, and characters come and go without establishing a presence. As involved as I was in Katherine’s transformation, I felt like I was being tugged toward its conclusion.
Like Katherine herself, “Lady Macbeth” isn’t what it appears to be; it’s more. For those who spot the hoop skirt and expect a sprawling, period romance, think again. This is a character-based thriller that gets its hands dirty, with more in common with “Django Unchained” than “Jane Eyre.”