Lusty, dark, shocking, subversive: all words you will see used to describe the new film by director William Oldroyd, Lady Macbeth. This gothic tale of a woman trapped in a loveless marriage who turns to sex, manipulation and ultimately violence to escape from her confines, is also quiet, beautiful, thought provoking and intelligent. For lovers of period drama expecting another Downton Abbey, Pride and Prejudice or even Jane Eyre, maybe this is not the film for you. Even if you are unaware of the novel this film is based off, the Shakespearean reference to Lady Macbeth in the title will send warning bells, leading a tenseness to the beginning of the film which starts slowly and gently, but always hinting, whispering of the violence to come.
The film begins with Katherine’s marriage to Alexander, a figure we do not see as the camera lingers on Katherine’s face. Already we feel her isolation. As she tries to join in singing hymns she is temporarily put off by the strong masculine voices around her, drowning out her own soft singing voice. She submits to her marital duties, and begins her life as wife and woman of the house with quiet resolution; however there are slight hints at her past and her stern gaze already alerts us to her strength of personality and defiance. It seems she was perhaps wealthier, less isolated and freer with her time before her marriage, and stuck in a quiet lonely house where she is discouraged from going outside she slips into a drowsy depression. We follow her around her daily routine, guided by the beautiful eye of cinematographer Ari Wegner which traces her hand on a banister, the striking contrast of her royal blue dress against the stark interiors, an occasional glimpse outside to the bleak but beautiful landscape. These quiet isolating shots are interspersed with tense meetings with her husband and rather demanding father in-law who blames her for the lack of an heir.
Like Katherine, the viewer slips into a drowsy boredom, but one we know won’t last, and when both husband and father in-law leave suddenly and without explanation the mood begins to change. Still drowsy in depression, Katherine begins to defy their rules, going outdoors, shunning her rich clothing for more simple dress and even donning the garb of her household staff to sneak out with her maid Anna. We never see what the two women get up to when they go out together this way, the shots of the film are very confined, we rarely see any of the house’s exterior, nor do we get a hint of other people living nearby, a village, or even very many staff on the premises. This all adds to the feeling of isolation, both socially and physically.
Then comes a shock: hearing yelling Katherine runs to find a group of men in the households employ have strung up Anna and are weighing her like they would a sow. The leader is the new stable hand, a defiant but handsome man by the name of Sebastian. Katherine seems more attracted than repelled by this disturbing scene, and despite putting an end to Anna’s humiliation, offers no support to her fellow woman, nor any real punishment to the perpetrators.
In a time where women are viewed largely as property (a fact confirmed when Alexander later spits at Katherine the fact that his father purchased her with a parcel of land) there seems to be little mutual respect between the two women. Occasionally they have sweet moments but we definitely feel that Anna is always judgemental of the behaviour of the better off lady of the house, and Katherine makes very few attempts to prevent Anna from being treated like an animal by the men in the story. Here we see barriers of class, race and even perhaps distain for the weakness of their own sex. There is an interesting article by Steve Rose in the Guardian that discusses the question of race in Lady Macbeth and highlights that the casting was not based on race but rather on finding the right person for each role. Despite this the strong race/class divide leads the viewer to confront this tension within the film. I confess I had hopes the story would travel down the surprisingly wonderful route that Park Chan-wook’s film The Handmaiden takes where the two downtrodden women band together to defeat the disgusting and manipulative male characters. Sadly this is not to be the case.
After meeting, and being obviously attracted to Sebastian, Katherine is interrupted by him bursting through her door in the middle of the night declaring his boredom and violently forcing himself upon her. When his violent advances upon Katherine turn to mutual lust, and possibly even love, it is difficult to feel the legitimacy of their affections. However this film is not a romance, yes they are passionate for each other, Katherine especially professes her love, but underlying that their motivations are power, freedom and subversion. Propelled by their infatuation, their frustration with their subservience and their restricted lives, Katherine and Sebastian turn to violence to free themselves from the constraints placed upon them by their sex, class, and arguably in Sebastian’s case, race. However when the truth begins to slip we see where their true allegiances lie. As remorse and madness descends and they are forced into more and more extreme actions to retain their freedom, their true characters emerge, Sebastian becoming more sympathetic as Katherine becomes more ruthless.
The true pillars of this film are Katherine and Anna, their daily interactions and the contrast between Katherine’s defiance and Anna’s compliance. Anna submits without complaint to her role within her society, and is shocked and appalled by Katherine’s actions. As Katherine becomes more outspoken, Anna becomes mute. They act almost as two examples for a possible reaction to the lives they lead, one of being quietly trampled and one of violent rebellion. Both reactions are understandable but both have devastating consequences.
For a film with a playtime of only 89 minutes the story is simple but feels well developed. We are given the time and space as viewers to experience first hand the boredom and isolation of the characters, and this garners sympathy for their violent break from this monotony. This break feels real and believable partly because the film cleverly draws us into the mood of the characters with the use of reoccurring circumstances and motifs: Katherine walking down stairs, Katherine being woken by Anna in the morning, Sebastian crouched in the stables in the foetal position, Katherine seated on the lounge, Anna picking mushrooms. As the film progresses each of these moments becomes more strained, more urgent, slightly more mad, culminating in the final scene where Katherine sits on the lounge where she has sat many times before, only this time staring directly into the camera, the scene blasting with the hum of music, a shock after so much of the film has been silent musically.
This is a film where sex, violence, decorum, degradation, Victorian prudery and formalities all coexist in a jarring tumult of emotion. It is gritty gothic noir at its best, but it also raises some very contemporary issues in regards to feminism, race, love, sexuality, the accuracy of history as presented through film, and the human desire for freedom from societal and physical constraints.
Lady Macbeth will be released in Australia on June 29.