William Shakespeare brought the character of Lady Macbeth to life in 1606. She was a manipulative, power-hungry, highly intelligent woman who adopted deception and impassivity in pursuit of power, while utilising her femininity to control men.
While William Oldroyd’s film Lady Macbeth follows Lady Katherine, a very young woman wed off to a middle aged landowner in the late nineteenth century. The film expertly tracks a character’s transformation from a scared, innocent child to a powerful, conniving woman over a short period of time, and a surprisingly short run time. The title even acts as a denomination for what Katherine may become.
At its heart, the film is a coming of age story with a deeply cutting twist. We are introduced to Katherine on her wedding day, where she appears childlike, vulnerable, and out of place in a room filled with wealthy, elderly men. She is an ornament in her husband Alexander’s. This concept is beautifully crafted by the framing and cinematography of Oldroyd and Australian Cinematographer Ari Wegner, which at multiple points resembles Victorian paintings – with Katherine laying in bed, sitting on her window sill or resting on a settee. Katherine is nothing more than still life, something pretty for Alexander to look at.
When Alexander and his overbearing father leave the estate on business matters, Katherine is granted some control and freedom. She begins to find her voice and a confidence arises in her. At first, it is magnificent to see Katherine empowered and maturing, yet it very soon becomes apparent that her carefree liberation has severe consequences on the people by which she is surrounded. The subtle changes in Katherine’s life are meticulously displayed by recurring shots that change slightly each time they appear, eventually presenting an entirely different Katherine to the child shown at the beginning; as she is consumed by her own moral degradation. It is impressive how the film naturally transforms Katherine into a dangerous adult without it ever feeling jarring or unrealistic. There are certain actions she makes that signify the changes in her ethics, but each feels justified by the one that preceded it.
So much of the success of this natural transition is due to a magnificent breakthrough performance from Florence Pough, who is able to portray Katherine with so many dimensions that she never feels fictional. It is easy for a young actor to get lost in such a scenery-chewing role, particularly in a period piece, but Pough is so captivating and understated in her performance that you can’t help but feel you are watching a future legend early in their career.
In fact, the performances all across the board are excellent. Paul Hilton is perfectly despicable as Alexander, while still coming off as human. Cosmo Jarvis plays the land worker Sebastian with boyish charm and, at time,s creepiness. He has one standout, heart-wrenching scene right near the end. Naomi Ackle plays the housemaid Anna with so much grace and pain that gives her character’s arc so much gravity. Even a small role of Alexander’s ward Teddy, played by Anton Palmer is a notable step up from so many child actors.
In its third act the film takes a slight dip, the narrative that has up until now only sped up slows to a near crawl. One plotline is briefly introduced before being swept to the side with no resolution, and while it is only hinted at, it is a major plot point that should have a detrimental effect to the story. However, the tragic and shocking, yet fitting, climax almost makes this forgivable.
Lady Macbeth is a triumph, a film that dramatically drops the Victorian period piece subgenre. Usually stuffed with subpar Jane Austen and Bronte sisters adaptations, this film confidently subverts these conventions with a violent, dramatic character study. I’m sure in the weeks following the film’s release, there will be discussion as to whether Lady Katherine is an antiquated understanding of women’s liberation leading to chaos, or a Feminist heroine. what is undeniable is that this is a powerful piece of filmmaking.
Lady Macbeth is now showing at select cinemas.