Looking for a perfect romantic movie for Valentine’s Day? Keep looking. “Lady Macbeth” is an electrifying Victorian drama in which violence and horror are the only rewards for a heroine who goes looking for some romance in her stultifying life. Lest that description indicate teen bride Katherine is a typical victim, her actions could not be further from victimhood.
Florence Pugh carries the film as Katherine, a young woman “purchased” for a husband who is almost as indifferent to her as she is to him, and the pawn in what could modestly be described as a dysfunctional father-son relationship. As brusque as Katherine’s older husband is, her father-in-law is even worse, heavily implying his expectations in the heir department with some blush-worthy specificity.
Katherine is a gamely confident young woman, and ultimately takes down not just those above her, but those beneath her when they try to stake a claim in her inheritance.
Trussed and brushed by her judgmental maid every day, Katherine can barely keep her eyes open, and even a walk outside is forbidden. When both her husband and his father are called away on separate business, Katherine is free to saunter the immense grounds of her isolated English country estate and enjoy some forbidden fresh air. It goes to her head much faster than her keeps could possibly have imagined.
In a fateful sojourn to the stables, you’ll be shocked to discover that a rugged stable boy catches her eye, and, well, you can imagine where it goes from here. Except you can’t imagine the lengths Katherine rather easily goes to in order to maintain her newly unbridled status. The arc of Katherine’s character goes beyond even the most extreme feminist revenge fantasy, as she ultimately victimizes not just her oppressors, but others around her who are also oppressed.
Katherine’s violent rebellion is not about making things fair, it’s about getting what she wants. One of the most challenging aspects of the film is her relationship with Anna, her black maid. While one might imagine the two women, both mistreated by the same men, might form a bond, they both enforce the men’s rules upon each other whenever possible. Anna tries to maintain the laws left behind for Katherine, and, in turn, Katherine slips all too easily into the role of master over Anna.
Throughout the film, Florence Pugh straddles the line between earning our sympathies — those old men are really cold and unfeeling! — and eliciting our revulsion — she shoots a horse! And it gets worse. She really does an incredible job of showing her deeply flawed character’s total confidence in the correctness of her actions, and she mines Katherine’s immaturity and petulance to truly memorable and chilling effect. Even when the viewers’ sympathies are, hopefully, long gone, Katherine still has the utmost sympathy for herself, and it gives the film a psychological depth beyond the shock value of her actions.
Based on “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District,” the 1865 novella by Nikolai Leskov first published in Dostoevsky’s magazine, Epoch, this film feels extremely current despite its source and setting. It is a starkly beautiful film, and the use of color is particularly effective, as Katherine’s striking blue gown slowly begins to reflect the state of the woman wearing it. The film’s content is not for the faint of heart, but the breakout performance of unforgettable villainess Pugh is worth wincing through.
“Lady Macbeth” is currently available to rent.