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Friday, August 11, 2017

Review: LADY MACBETH Is A Bleak Portrait of Privilege and Power

It is easy to take a glance at Lady MacBeth and assume you're in for a fairly typical period drama. Set in England in the mid-1800s, director William Oldroyd and cinematographer Ari Wegner capture the gorgeous costumes and the restrictive ceremony that goes into putting them on, the lonely creek of the film's isolated estate, the chill beauty of rural England. The film is casually restrained, long period's of silence establishing a sleepy - quite literally, for our lead - routine. Its opening minutes feel very familiar. But Oldroyd and writer Alice Birch, adapting a 19th century Russian novella, slowly make it evident that we're watching something much darker than your typical period drama. From the abuse heaped on innocent housemaid Anna to the manipulative sadism of Alexander to his new bride, Katherine, they make it clear that there's a corruption in this household. What isn't immediately obvious is the precise nature of that corruption -- and it is there that Oldroyd and Birch find something brilliant and unsettling.

In Lady MacBeth, Katherine (Pugh) is a newly wed young woman come to the rural estate of her new husband. There, she enters into a literally loveless marriage with a husband who doesn't want her and a father-in-law who blames her for that every morning. Her only company is Anna (Naomi Ackie), the housemaid who wakes her every morning and attends to most of her needs. Two events shake up her sad, dull life: Her husband and father-in-law leave the estate for business, and a brutish new groomsman, Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), arrives and tries to force his way into Katherine's affections. In her affair with Sebastian, Katherine finds some degree of freedom, but it is destined to be short-lived with the domineering men in her family soon to return home unless she takes some fairly drastic steps...

It is difficult to take a character from sympathetic to sympathetically monstrous, but Florence Pugh (The Falling) manages to do just that. She has a chillingly vacuous quality at the start of the film that seems like a symptom of the repression of her spirit going on in this house, but slowly reveals itself to have much darker layers. Because she seems so much like an empty vessel at first, though, much of her characters comes through in her interactions with the rest of the cast.

Cosmo Jarvis' role is fascinating, starting off the hyper-confident working class lothario who finds his newest victim to be a bit more than he can handle. Jarvis' cockiness starts off grating, even vicious in his treatment of women. But in Katherine, Sebastian has met his match, finding a woman who refuses to be shamed or submissive, and the audience realizes well before he does that Sebastian is neither strong enough nor emotionally stable enough to handle a relationship like that. I was fascinated by his rocky relationship with Katherine, which allows Pugh to play passionate... but mostly finds her playing piqued and demanding, a smart choice that tells us a lot about what she gets out of this relationship.

Likewise, Naomi Ackie's Anna, the film's only true innocent, is a good sign of who Katherine is well before the rest of the world catches up. Ackie is the only one who is with Pugh through the beginning, and the story modulates itself almost completely off her performance. Indeed, two of the film's most memorable scenes are wordless... and belong completely to Ackie, who can convey the injustices of the world without a word like few other actors. This is Ackie's first role in a feature film, and I was enormously impressed at how much she did with a very slim role.

Lady MacBeth is a Russian nesting doll of privilege and cruelty. In the beginning, it seems like it will be a feminist parable, a story about a young woman taking back her own life and livelihood through any means necessary. But Birch and Oldroyd slowly upend expectations, demonstrating that for all that she was put upon by the men in her life, Katherine was not without considerable privilege herself. She's happy to take power away from her husband and father, but sharing it with the rest of the abused household? What seemingly begins as a woman's fight for freedom quickly becomes a much more chilling story about what people in power will do to stay in power, the small rural estate a potent synecdoche for wider systemic issues.

This, of course, makes Lady MacBeth a pretty rough watch at times, particularly given its violence to its black cast. The film consciously works to strip you of people to root for and flip your sympathies. It actively invites you to forget and marginalize its most innocent character,  It may look like a period drama, with all the beautiful cinematography and gorgeous costumes that entails, but this movie has the bleak, beating heart of a truly twisted psychosexual thriller. It's nasty, brutish, and short, the kind of movie that could attract some of the same audience - and some of the same criticism - as Gone Girl, but I think Oldroyd and Birch found an interesting way to use modern intersectional feminism to breath new life into old class struggles. Come for the gorgeous period trappings; stay for the brutal societal critique.

Lady MacBeth is out now in select theaters. Written by Alice Birch adapting Nikolai Leskov's 1865 novella "Lady MacBeth of the Mtsensk District," and directed by William Oldroyd, Lady MacBeth stars Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis, and Naomi Ackie.
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