** out of ****
(for some disturbing violence, strong sexuality/nudity, and language)
Released: July 14, 2017 limited; expands August 4
Runtime: 89 minutes
Director: William Oldroyd
Starring: Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis, Paul Hilton, Naomi Ackie, Christopher Fairbank, Golda Rosheuvel
Shakespeare, it ain’t. Literally.
A 19th Century period piece set in rural England, this Lady Macbeth isn’t an adaptation of “Macbeth” from a different point of view, nor does it have any direct association to the infamous wife of the doomed would-be Scottish king. Confidently mounted though it may be, and executed with palpable dread, Lady Macbeth is not worthy of the source it references. To put it bluntly (as this movie does), it’s basically sick.
More nihilistic Brontë than Bard, Lady Macbeth is the story of a young English woman named Katherine who’s sold into marriage with an older abusive husband. Confined to the house and kept on a tight suffocating leash even within that, Katherine rebels against the stifling oppression by taking on a torrid sexual affair with one of the servants.
This triggers a path of obsession that goes to dark, unpredictable places as the spiraling journey corrupts her soul.
Much of the film’s first half is a raw look at Katherine’s life, one much more brutal than mere quiet desperation. It depicts the cruel privilege of pre-modern patriarchy, with Katherine as the victim.
She is, essentially, a house accessory by day and human sex doll for her husband by night. Katherine’s humanity is debased at every single moment. This paradigm expands to the servants as well, seen in a moment when Katherine catches the men abusing a maid for their pleasure.
The experience is unsettling to watch and it only gets worse, at times bordering on Art House Torture Porn, all to no thematic virtue. It’s as if director William Oldroyd graduated magna cum laude from The Michael Haneke School of Cinematic Sadism, and this is his thesis project debut.
It’s an exercise that’s pointlessly provocative, with a villain that’s nothing more than a melodramatic strawman, in which inhumane sexual tyranny is met with callous, twisted revenge.
The final act adds a layer that holds the potential of some humanity, even redemption, but Oldroyd takes it in the exact opposite direction, doubling down on the brutality, compounding it with selfishness, and turning Katherine into an anti-heroine unnecessarily, not to mention offensively. The climax will straight piss you off.
To the extent the title is valid, Katherine initially wields a strength to do what needs to be done, a resolve that the men around her lack. In the end, however, she never carries the guilt of this film’s iconic namesake.
The young Florence Pugh gives a powerhouse performance; so commanding is her turn in the titular lead that it appears destined to be the first of many in an instantly promising career.
But beyond being a showcase for a should-be future star, Lady Macbeth is, well, to quote “Macbeth”, a tale full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.