Florence Pugh as Katherine in ‘Lady Macbeth.’ — video still
On their wedding night, Katherine’s husband, Alexander, asks if she is cold, and asserts, “This house gets very cold.” But Katherine smiles at him reassuringly and insists in earnest, “I’m thick-skinned.” It’s the last time Katherine will appear so innocent and eager-to-please, but she is not wrong. Her skin proves to be very thick indeed.
William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth is an adaptation of Nikolai Leskov’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, first published in Dostoevsky’s Epoch magazine in 1865 and since adapted into the 1934 Russian opera by Shostakovich and the 1962 film by Polish director Andrzej Wajda. But of course the original Lady Macbeth dates back to Shakespeare’s tragedy. Macbeth’s scheming wife revealed that women could be as ruthless and cruel as men. Yet in Oldroyd’s film, Katherine’s ambition and actions — and her admittedly thick skin — come to surpass even her namesake’s violent legacy.
Set in 1865 in rural England, Oldroyd’s film (adapted for the screen by playwright Alice Birch) opens with Katherine’s wedding to Alexander. The marriage was arranged by Alexander’s father, Boris (Christopher Fairbank), who later explains that Katherine’s most important marital duty is to provide her husband with a legitimate heir. But Alexander (Paul Hilton) shows no interest in Katherine (played with equal parts wit and restraint by Florence Pugh).
Furthermore, despite her objections, Katherine is instructed to stay indoors. In these early scenes, Pugh is often placed in the center of the camera’s static frame, donning a distended blue dress that contrasts with the colorless background of the home’s drab and sparsely furnished interiors.
Katherine’s solitude is highlighted by the film’s lack of score. In this way, there are perhaps traces of Chantal Ackerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels (1975) in Oldroyd’s film, or even Germaine Dulac’s early avant-garde short The Smiling Madame Beudet (1923) — two films that owe their tropes of repressed sexuality and stifling domesticity to Flaubert’s Madame Bovary.
When both Alexander and Boris are called away on business, Katherine is left on her own, save for a handful of servants and farmhands. She immediately leaves the confines of the house, and the cinematography appears to mimic her liberation. A handheld camera follows her movements on the windswept moor, recalling every effective adaptation of a Brontë novel (most notably Andrea Arnold’s 2011 adaptation of Emily’s Wuthering Heights, but also Cary Fukunaga’s 2011 adaptation of Charlotte’s Jane Eyre).
Coupled with her fleeting moment of freedom on the heath, Katherine’s likeness to the prototypical feminist characters (and creators) of literary and cinematic history momentarily seduces spectators into rooting for the defiant heroine. Don’t be tempted, lest you forget for which fearsome woman the film is named.
Having left the house, Katherine soon encounters Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), a worker on her husband’s estate. Katherine catches him in the act of tormenting and assaulting her personal maid, Anna (Naomi Ackie), but Sebastian is bold and brash and wholly unrepentant. Katherine falls for him almost immediately. The two become lovers, and Katherine becomes determined to keep it that way — despite her father-in-law and husband’s return to the estate. The carnality of Katherine and Sebastian’s sexual affair soon translates with ease to a series of murderous plots and exploits.
Like Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled (also in theaters this summer), Lady Macbeth has the veneer of a period piece, but the engine of a horror film. But there is a significant difference between these two adaptations. Coppola, adapting her film from the 1966 Thomas P. Cullinan novel (which was also adapted into a 1971 film starring Clint Eastwood), chose to remove the narrative’s two women of color from her film by eliminating a slave character named Hallie and by casting Kirsten Dunst as the character of Edwina, who is of mixed race in the novel.
Coppola has defended her choice to whitewash the film, stating in a BuzzFeed News interview: “I didn’t want to brush over such an important topic in a light way. Young girls watch my films and this was not the depiction of an African American character I would want to show them.” This may be true, but it’s also a convenient way to highlight and even celebrate the radical feminism of oppressed white women, while simultaneously obfuscating the privilege that is wielded by their skin, if not their gender.
Lady Macbeth goes in an entirely different direction. Diverting from the source material, Sebastian and Anna are played by actors of color (as are two more characters introduced later in the film played by Golda Rosheuvel and Anton Palmer). Although this fact of their identity is never explicitly discussed, their vulnerability compared to Katherine — and at the mercy of Katherine — is the real source of tension and terror throughout the film.
Yet when Katherine smiles — evoking the prim smiles of Madame Beudet and Jeanne Dielman before her — the feminist in me wants to smile with her. But make no mistake, Katherine’s skin is not just thick, it is also alabaster white — and her ability to not only use, but use up the people of color around her is a stark reminder of the real violence perpetuated by the ever-entwined forces of patriarchy and racism.
The list of reasons to see this film are many — Pugh’s performance, the meticulous attention to detail in the mise-en-scène and cinematography, the overall painterly vision of theater-turned-film director William Oldroyd — but the most compelling reason might be the après-screening discussions regarding the destructive and divisive force that is not only Katherine, but each and every embodiment of Lady Macbeth.