Lady MacBeth is a potent Victorian melodrama that transcend its 19th century setting to deliver a chilling contemporary tale about oppression, femininity, and prejudice thanks to a captivating performance by Florence Pugh and an intelligent screenplay.

Rural England, 1865. Katherine (Florence Pugh) is stifled by her loveless marriage to a bitter man twice her age, and his cold, unforgiving family. When she embarks on a passionate affair with a young worker on her husband’s estate, a force is unleashed inside her so powerful that she will stop at nothing to get what she wants.

Much has already been said about women in period dramas, but once in a while a story transcends its time and becomes ahead of its time at the same time.

Lady Macbeth starts with the familiar tale of the female’s fate in the old bygone times – a girl has been sold off to marriage. But in the opening scene, we instantly get a sense that this is no ordinary tale of no ordinary girl. Katherine doesn’t look worried or afraid. In fact, she’s not even nervous in the first night of her marriage. As much as she’s willing to perform her duty none of it is reciprocated – she’s not only treated as no more than a commodity, she’s also trapped in a lifeless marriage. Eventually, that willful nature quietly blossoms into something more than any of people around her ever expected.

The movie quietly and brilliantly executes Katherine’s transformation – or should I say liberation – through a calm and measured approach that makes the story effective and affecting.

Plot, production design, and cinematography establish the tedious, oppressive and stifled life she’s trapped in.

Katherine’s days are slow and repetitive – wake up, stay indoors and occasionally wait for her husband in the same chair in the same dress. Production design and camerawork capture the boxed-in monotony of this world with drab interiors and small spaces, with only a blue dress and a brown chair as contrast.  When these events are disrupted by the menfolk they alternately treat her cold. The father-in-law constantly reminds her of a duty that she can’t barely fulfill. The husband is never around and doesn’t consummate the marriage when he is. At some point, she ends up facing the wall naked as he masturbates out of the frame.

Slowly, Katherine subtly exercises her will on the house like a single thorny rose blooming in the snow. In one scene, she drinks all the red wine that Boris is left with none at dinner. Anna can’t reveal the culprit of course, and ends up crawling back to the kitchens on all fours as ordered.

Florence Pugh delivers a stellar performance, morphing from a petulant girl to a sexually confident woman, all with consistent composure and quiet anger. The rest of the cast also did very well – the dutiful handmaid with a critical eye played by Naomi Ackie, the cocky farmhand played by Cosmo Jarvis,  the brusque father-in-law played by Christopher Fairbank and his brusquer son played by Paul Hilton.

At the same time, the movie is more than just about a woman who achieves self-possession in a household that treats her as a property of somebody else. It shows how a victim can gradually turn into an oppressor after continued emotional abuse. Transcending its 19th century setting Lady Macbeth also makes a social commentary on prejudice as she takes advantage of Anna and Sebastian’s disadvantages as a means to her own ends.

While all of this provides a riveting update and overdue spotlight to a character that is sidelined in the Scottish play that inspired the source material, Lady Macbeth evolves into an unredeemable character than an anti-heroine that the movie attempts her to be.

The plot pushes Katherine in the arms of another man and the turning point in her life is an affair with a stable boy. Lady Macbeth commits increasingly gruesome and irrational acts to keep this romance. Even with the movie’s proto-feminist tone, her self-actualization revolves around a man.

Eventually she gets cornered as the plot has nowhere else to go. If it weren’t for Pugh’s commanding yet sympathetic performance, Katherine is easily a psycho. But even with this, some can’t help but derive at that conclusion as she becomes a convenient plot device.

Still, it can be said that Lady Macbeth is a potent costume drama with a contemporary voice. It delves into female sexual liberation in a time when sexual pleasure of women are more scandalous than men’s affairs. At best, it shows us that a woman has the power to do whatever the hell she wants, regardless of what society thinks of her.

My Rating: 8.5/10

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