Impolite BBC drama is bad romance at its best
Lady Macbeth (2017)
Directed by William Oldroyd
Cast: Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis, Paul Hilton
There are British films, and then there are BBC films. That familiar, three-letter, reverse display font logo at the beginning of a movie is enough to ensure viewers they’ll be watching some high-quality, historical costume drama. But with their newest film, the BBC throws some bodice-ripping and very bad behavior in with the usual Victorian era drawing room drama. Though it may offend polite habitués of “Downton Abbey,” this down-and-dirty anti-romance adds a welcome hint of modern-day moral ambiguity to the BBC’s brand.
Lady Macbeth is not based—as you might rightly assume—on the works of famed Brit William Shakespeare, but on Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. In 19th century rural England we meet our semi-titular character Katherine (fresh face Florence Pugh, fiercely staking out her future acting career). Young and pretty (but sans means), she’s being married off to middle-aged coal mining magnate Alexander (Paul Hilton). The couple’s wedding night is as passionless and uncomfortable as ... well, a traditional British marriage sounds. Alexander proves to be a frigid and rather cruel husband, leaving innocent, unworldly Katherine to ponder just what she’s gotten herself into. Beyond the bedchamber the rest of Victorian era English manor life is made to look equally awesome. On a daily basis Katherine is strapped into a corset and hoop skirt, only to sit on a divan all day with nothing to do. And as a dutiful wife she’s stuck obeying her nasty husband’s every command with such regularity that her life becomes an unending game of “Simon Says.”
One day, however, hubby is called off to tend to a business crisis, leaving Katherine to her own devices at the couple’s isolated manor house. Katherine takes the opportunity to escape the confines of the stark household and “take the air,” as it were. One day, while exploring the grounds, she spots a group of groomsmen perpetrating a humiliating prank on one of the maidservants. Katherine steps in and upbraids the men—but something in the situation stirs her blood. Causing her pulse to race in particular is the smoldering stare of rough stable boy Sebastian (musician-
With her estranged husband seemingly uninterested in returning home, Katherine starts living quite as she pleases, taking Sebastian into her bedchamber on a regular basis and glaring the other servants (Naomi Ackie’s semi-sympathetic maid in particular) into complicit silence. Eventually, however, Katherine’s elderly father-in-law (Christopher Fairbank) shows up. Gloomy and disagreeable as her husband may be, his father is even worse. Sussing out Katherine’s dirty little secret, he beats Sebastian within an inch of his life and demands Katherine start acting in a more “wifely” manner. But you can’t keep a girl down on the farm once she’s seen Paris, so to speak.
Having had quite enough of 19th century gender rules in general and the sexist Victorian family she married into in particular, Katherine decides to—as the film’s title presages—go all “Lady Macbeth” on their asses. Tossing caution and inheritance laws to the wind, Katherine starts defying convention, manipulating the people around her, making demands and (eventually) quite a bit worse. Pugh performs a delicate and mesmerizing balancing act here. Her character’s frustrations are more than justified, but—like a certain Scottish lady—the ends aren’t exactly justifying her means. As various impediments to her unfettered happiness start to show up on the doorstep (in some cases, literally), Katherine redoubles her efforts to emancipate herself. Over time, however, her desires grow increasingly selfish and have some serious negative repercussions on the people around her—most notably Sebastian, who starts to crack under the increasingly dark demands of his mistress.
At a mere 89 minutes, Lady Macbeth is short and anything but sweet. Austere in its look and claustrophobic in its setting, the film lacks the grandiose romantic tragedy of films like Dangerous Liaisons, The Red Violin or Atonement (to name a random few). But it packs a quick punch nonetheless. First-time filmmaker (longtime theater and opera director) William Oldroyd knows his timing, striking while the iron is hot and getting the hell out of there. The (heavily) adapted script by Alice Birch (also a first-timer) does an effective, efficient job of examining the limited possibilities open to women in the mid-19th century. The film also touches, rather quietly, on issues of racial identity in England—something rarely talked about in this period. Both Katherine’s lover and her maid are non-white, and though the film never overtly mentions that fact, their overall status in society is neatly encapsulated in the film’s ruthless ending. Far too stark to call Gothic, way too bleak to call romantic, Lady Macbeth is a violent heartbreaker for those who prefer broken hearts to happy endings.