Katherine is a young bride, sold into marriage by her father and sent to live with her new husband and father-in-law in 19th century rural England (I mean, she doesn’t time travel there, it’s a period film).
It’s hard to say who is more cruel, the husband who “cannot” sleep with her but likes to masturbate to the sight of her behind, or the father-in-law who continually admonishes her for failing in her wifely duties. Both men are cold and heartless so let’s just say Katherine isn’t exactly heartbroken when they both leave her “alone” at home. “Alone” in the 19th century of course means there are still dozens of servants (slaves? I think maybe yes – employees are much less likely to put up with the flogging and being locked in cellars and such) about, and eyes are everywhere. Sebastian, a new groom, catches Katherine’s attention, and as they ignite a passionate affair, she actually seems to come alive for the first time. But then her father in law returns and everything goes to hell. You might guess the nature of this hell by the name the film (and the novel on which it is based) is given. Lady Macbeth will stop at nothing to get what she wants.
I’ve heard the film described as a character study and I’m not sure I agree – for much of the film, Katherine’s emotions are impenetrable, to us and possibly even to her. She seems almost to have gone numb to the degrading circumstances of her life. Florence Pugh gives an absolutely riveting performance but I’m not sure we ever come to know Katherine’s inner workings or her motivations. What we do get is a taste of the subordination of women of the time. The oppression is as weighty as Katherine’s voluminous skirts, and it weighs everyone down. As she escapes from under the thumb of her horrid life, Katherine then becomes horrid herself. The movie burns with sex and murder but is icy in its remove.
Lady Macbeth is measured and quiet. It’s an unusual film and it’s not going to be for everyone. What I enjoyed most is that it dismantles the romanticism of other period films – “corset films” as Keira Knightly, who has built her career on them, calls them. The horse-drawn carriage rides through fields untouched by time look awfully nice, but the truth is these times were still savage for anyone not a wealthy white man. Lady Macbeth may be a “lady” in name, but Katherine is a sociopath by circumstance. It doesn’t excuse what she does, but it does make you wonder whether you mightn’t have done it yourself.