I almost didn’t see Lady Macbeth, my number one film of 2017. I watched it on a whim after an impressively tense trailer, and a positive recommendation from the Empire Podcast. And boy it did not disappoint.
The story, adapted by Alice Birch from the 19th century Russian novel, is inspired by Shakespeare’s enigmatic villainess, but reimagined as a repressed teen bride trapped in a Victorian mansion and an arranged, loveless marriage.
Like a tornado trapped in a jar, Katherine (Florence Pugh) rebels against the orders of wifely docility ineffectively thrust upon her by her new-husband’s father. When he commands her stay inside, she walks outside. When he commands her to behave, she breaks the rules. By the time he discovers what she really is, she’s a force far too powerful to be stopped. As the lady of the house, Katherine is a merciless autocrat. When her sullen husband goes away she rules her domain, and everyone in it, with an iron fist. She gets what she wants and follows no man’s rules.
Florence Pugh is a tour-de-force as Katherine, the fierce, stubborn, sensual, antihero who goes from unhappy young bride to a cold, calculated killer. Only 19 when the she filmed this, this is undoubtedly the best performance I saw in 2017, and deserves more awards recognition than it’s getting. Writing for Indiewire, David Ehrlich said it best:
It’s often said that films orbit around certain people, but “Lady Macbeth” is the rare film that actually justifies the expression; Katherine stays rooted in place as we pivot from one perspective to another. She isn’t a victim who becomes a monster, or a prisoner who becomes a master; she’s a woman who’s been conditioned to believe that abuse is the only true expression of power, and she’s determined to survive her sex.
A debut feature from William Oldroyd, it is a bold, impressive work. You can tell his background in theatre by the skill in which he navigates the tense intimate dialogue scenes. However, where the film thrives is its cinematic vigour. The most important exchanges in this film are said, not with words, but with looks, captured stunningly by Ari Wegner.
Oldroyd’s first film is a shocking and gripping masterclass in tension filmmaking. I look forward to seeing what he does next.