I’ve always thought of myself as enough of a costume drama nerd to always be on the hook for a period piece with enough pretty dresses & careful attention to set design. Lady Macbeth proved me wrong. Adapted from the 19th Century bodice-ripper
Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District and stripped to only the barest of narrative details, the film is both slight & driven by prurience. That exact formula didn’t stop me in the past from enjoying the Russ Meyer schlock Fanny Hill: A Memoir a Woman of Pleasure, though, so the things that bothered me about Lady Macbeth have been much more difficult to pinpoint. My problems with the film have been much more tied to how its narrative structure obscures its themes & intent until the very last minute, so that the film’s thesis plays like a gotcha! twist instead of a fully explored idea. Lady Macbeth is a harsh film packed with cruel, confusing behavior from characters we don’t know and we don’t get to know. Withholding the purpose of their vicious selfishness until the last minute leaves the film leading up to the reveal feeling pointlessly ugly on a spiritual level, something even a (very) pretty dress can’t quite cover up.
Florence Pugh stars as the murderous protagonist referenced in the title, a young woman recently married off as part of a land deal to an older man who has zero sexual interest in her. Alone in a rural England home with her husband, his ornery father, and a mostly black staff of servants & farm hands, she finds herself emotionally isolated & hopelessly bored. She acts out under this pressure in dangerous ways, “failing miserably in every one of [her] marital duties,” which, since her husband will not sexually interact with her, mostly includes listening to the clock tick while wearing a beautiful blue dress. Her protest of this unwanted life mostly entails starting a dangerous, adulterous affair with one of her PoC farm hands, a transgression she makes little, if any effort to hide. As the Shakespeare allusion in the title suggests, it’s a transgression that comes with a body count. She and her lover have to commit an exponentially depraved set of crimes to keep their affair alive, a path of atrocities she pressures the man into until his conscience can no longer take it. There’s a tonal shift from sympathy to shame as her transgressions progress this way, but by the time the film attempts to make a coherent point about the damage she’s causing the runtime comes to halt.
Lady Macbeth is a 90 minute adaptation of a (trashy) novel, stripping almost all story & character development that might provide helpful context for its flawed-by-design protagonist’s actions. There’s a Marie Antoinette-style critique built into the story that faults the title character for her flagrant misbehavior risking other people’s lives as she carelessly has her fun. That subversion of typical costume drama sympathies for women who are sold as wives/property against their will into a story about mishandled, deadly white privilege is certainly interesting, but there’s something infuriating about how Lady Macbeth saves that theme’s development as a last second twist. In the meantime, character motivations are baffling & left to be interpreted as pointlessly cruel. Two early, violent sex acts are depicted so coldly and without context that the question of consent is left entirely obscured, leaving them to feel like un-critical participation in the rape fantasies common to ancient romance novels. It takes an incredible amount of time for the protagonist to start laying the blame for her crimes on her PoC servants, who stand to lose much more than her for the transgressions, leaving no room for reflection on what that dynamic means after the film has concluded. In the meantime, what’s left onscreen feels far beneath the film’s visual quality as a period piece, yet not nearly fun or exciting enough to justify its pulpy tone. Then eventual theme is worthy of exploration it never receives, the characters on both sides of the crimes are never developed enough to elicit a genuine emotional reaction, and everything in-between feels like wasted time, save Pugh’s performance & costuming. Depending on your patience with its thematic reluctance, it might test the period drama devotee in you as well, if not make you question that inclination entirely.