2017 | rated R | starring Florence Pugh | directed by William Oldroyd | 1hr 29mins |
Studio Pitch: Female empowerment in 19th century aristocratic England.
For most of movie history, heroes and villains have been defined on screen by how they treated women – with the villain instantly identified by slapping a woman across the face and the hero coming to her rescue. In 2017, that’s not quite enough. In 2017, the villain is identified by forcing our female lead into an objectified position, hiding their face, screaming that she not look at him and angrily masturbating at the sight of their body. Katherine (Florence Pugh), the proverbial Lady McBeth at the center of Lady McBeth is caught between these two archtypical men – the husband who angrily masturbates and a lover who wants to pleasure her.
Lady McBeth is a small, streamlined but modestly artful little film set entirely in an aristocratic house in the English countryside where Katherine does her wifly duties of dressing up, sitting around staring at the wall (into the camera), hosting dinner parties and ostensibly just waiting for a cruel angry-masturbator husband to return, sent away by her even more vicious father in law (who we assume also angrily masturbates). The doldrums drive her to near madness and into the arms of a lover turning the film into an art-house erotic thriller. It’s a star vehicle for Pugh, who is undeniably good, carrying the movie alone. As Katherine becomes more awakened sexually she increasingly rebels against the men holding everyone down, standing up for her black servant (Naomi Ackie) against the cruelty of the staff and chipping away at the power structure. In the best scene in the movie, she takes her father-in-law’s place at the table in an act of calm, confident domestic rebellion. It’s like a 19th century American Beauty.
Disappointingly though, director Oldroyd doesn’t expand this story but keeps folding it in on itself. The story can’t think of anything to do but turn this story into a series of murders and cover-ups. The proverbial candlestick over the head makes an appearance. As a showcase for Pugh, it’s a good one. As a turn of the century film it doesn’t have the atmosphere and world building detail I usually eat up in these type of movies. Lady McBeth isn’t an atmospheric film, it’s a silent one, made of long stares and almost no music and none of the slow-burn suspense the movie sorely needed. Intentionally thin and an easy watch, without a lot of meat on it’s bones, Lady MacBeth may work for some, but didn’t give me a whole lot more than what we’ve seen before.