A “feminist” film need not portray all its female characters in a positive light. Women aren’t a monolith of benevolence. Still, a film with multiple female characters who are equal parts sympathetic and sadistic, who face off against one another in a battle of wits and will, exposing some harsh truths about race, class and privilege, is something rare — something to be tightly embraced. Lady Macbeth — a chilling period piece about a woman who comes into her own savage power, directed by William Oldroyd and penned by playwright Alice Birch — is that film.
Newcomer Florence Pugh smolders as Lady Katherine, a young woman sold into a loveless and dutiful marriage with a much older man, Alexander (Paul Hilton). Our sympathies are squarely with her in the opening scene, peering out from a white lace veil, surveying the solemn men in dark suits surrounding her at the ceremony. Her eyes take in the world with curiosity and dread: What will they do to her? Perhaps knowing the answer to that, Lady Katherine surprises us with a question of her own: In what terrible ways will she deal them their fate?
Alexander is dispatched abruptly to a fire somewhere yonder for an indefinite amount of time. Really, though, this is Alexander’s shoddy and convenient excuse to disappear and avoid sleeping with his wife for months, or even forever — his reasoning is slyly revealed toward the end of the narrative. Alexander’s father, Boris (Christopher Fairbank), punishes Katherine’s insolence by leaving her in the house alone with the servants. This is the first of the fatal flaws in the thinking of these male characters: Their assumption that a woman’s biggest fear is being left to herself.
The moment the house is free of men, Katherine’s corset is loosened (or gone altogether). Later, when decorum demands that her servant Anna (Naomi Ackie) — who happens to be black — must again tie her up tight at the waist, Katherine deals with the pain by slurping red wine. And when Katherine takes a lover — farmhand Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis) — her demeanor grows hungrier, and Oldroyd finds in her desire deliciously dark humor.
In one moment, Katherine’s arms are splayed wide across the footboard of her bed while she and Sebastian writhe in ecstasy. The creaking wood of the bedframe beats like a frantic heartbeat against the floor, echoing through the cold, prisonlike home. Then Oldroyd brusquely cuts to fresh-faced, prim Katherine in daylight, holding out her cup for some of Anna’s tea, the gentle tinkling of liquid in the china so at odds with the sounds that preceded it. This is a house with no secrets. Rule-abiding Anna hears the ruckus from the lovers, and her tight-lipped, prudish response (she is unable to question her mistress’ exploits) at first contributes to the comedy — at least until Katherine slowly devolves from lovable cad to vindictive murderess.
When Boris returns at last and requests a special wine for dinner, Anna must deliver the news that it’s all gone — Katherine drank it. But the lady’s anxious face and cold eyes challenge Anna, and the servant has no choice but to take the blame for the wine disappearing. It’s a multilayered, almost dialogue-free scene that ends (achingly) with Anna crawling on hands and knees out the door, at Boris’ behest. Oldroyd frames her so that we only see the top of her back at the bottom of the screen, like a little worm undulating away from its tormenters. Pugh’s and Ackie’s performances here are electric and expressive, the former portraying ultimate power, the latter ultimate fear. By the end of this twisty, enigmatic story, my chest was as tight as one of Katherine’s corsets.