Film review | Lady Macbeth: Portrait of a Lady

The utterly fantastic and slimy performances, well-written characters and well-presented and implied character motivations, the tight and careful pace and William Oldroyd’s assured direction make the story of incredibly terrible people riveting to watch

16 May 2017, 7:30am
The biter, bit: Florenge Pugh is the titular ‘Lady Macbeth’ in William Oldroyd’s adaptation of the 19th century Russian novel
The biter, bit: Florenge Pugh is the titular ‘Lady Macbeth’ in William Oldroyd’s adaptation of the 19th century Russian novel
Review by Andreas Matia Arqueros

Imagine Ingmar Bergman’s austere chamber narratives, with a small number of characters and set in a lot of interiors, Haneke’s desolate, cynical and austere storytelling in The White Ribbon, Hidden, The Piano Teacher and Amour, and Park Chan-Wook’s dark depraved heart and more outlandish characters; all mixing and combining together and you might get an idea on what this is, all mostly shot in a lot of (beautiful and naturally lit) claustrophobic, oppressive, austere and carefully symmetrically composed interior shots. 

The film, based on a Russian novel whose only thing I know is its plot outline (apparently, there is an opera as well) by Nikolai Leskov, deals with a woman sold into marriage with a horrible person, whose father is equally horrible... but it’s okay, because she is almost as horrible if not worse, and falls for a pretty horrible worker in the mansion she is forced to stay in and will do anything to stay with him and further satisfy her sexual urges. 

In lesser hands, this could have been unwatchable, the only likeable character being a side-character who is forced to partake in the young wife’s scheming. It’s Fanny and Alexander where almost every character is about as likeable as the priest who marries and adopts the titular kids in that film. 

Thankfully, the utterly fantastic and slimy performances, well-written characters and well-presented and implied character motivations, the tight and careful pace and William Oldroyd’s assured direction – which is also incredibly impressive for a newcomer – make the story of incredibly terrible people riveting to watch. 

The film is based on a Russian novel whose only thing I know is its plot outline
The film is based on a Russian novel whose only thing I know is its plot outline
To follow up on connections made earlier on, the most germane comparison one can make here – both in how it frames the racial tensions and also frames its countryside mansion within the shot – is Haneke’s Hidden. The difference with Oldroyd’s film is that it is not set in contemporary France, but the Victorian era, there is a clear difference between the very pale patrons of the house, and the swarthier and darker workers and maid, whose words at the end matter less than the pale patrons they are working for (though it is fair to say that our ‘Lady Macbeth’ was herself part of the peasantry, sold into marriage with a small pot of land). 

The sexual themes are explored as cynically as they are in The Piano Teacher, albeit this film is livelier then Haneke’s grimy and intentionally unpleasant work. They are in fact, the main crux of the film. Lady Macbeth in Shakespeare’s play was a character who ruthlessly searched and schemed to attain power, leading to her and her husband’s ruin. In this film, Lady Macbeth’s intentions revolve around her sexual desires and emancipation, as she schemes and gets rid of anything that prevents her from achieving her goals against the backdrop of the oppressive scenario she has been forced into. 

The characters themselves come out as rather colorful – though with various shades of awful human beings compared to the more stern and dour folks Haneke tends to portray, and that itself is closer to Park’s The Handmaiden, which is still being shown now here in local theatres and you could yourselves a favor to watch, or even that director’s earlier attempt, Stoker. 

Our lead is herself a victim in the plot, forced into a situation she had no choice in being in.

Overall she is treated like garbage, and as literal object for sexual arousal by her husband who seems to refuse to touch her, but throughout the plot she develops into something sinister herself, going to lengths which are at first understandable considering the utterly awful people she is under, but then a whole irredeemable level of wrong as the plot progresses.  

This leads to two of the film’s three major important strengths. The film is carefully paced and in occasions, wonderfully scripted. The dialogue, especially of the husband and father-in-law is colorful, witty and brimming with vileness that it is a joy to listen to. Following that you have the fantastic performances by everyone involved, especially Florence Pugh as Katherine, the titular ‘Lady Macbeth’ and my personal favorite by Christopher Fairbank as the aforementioned father-in-law, a man with the charm of Nosferatu and a tongue as sweet and gentle as a rusted razor in the hands of a psychopath. All of this is framed and lit perfectly by Oldroyd and his crew, who do the best and most out of the minimal props and closed sets the story is placed in. 

The point is that the film is great, and worth a try, even if it loses some points for its sudden and abrupt conclusion, but otherwise, it’s one of the best and nastiest English-language period dramas I have seen in a while.