Of Female Bondage: Lady Macbeth vs the Patriarchy

Lady Macbeth

Dave author picLady Macbeth begins in bondage. Katherine (Florence Pugh) has been married off to Alexander (Paul Hilton), a cold cruel man many years her senior. He’d prefer to confine his wife to their Scottish estate, while his father, Boris (Christopher Fairbank), stonily chides his new daughter-in-law to attend to her ‘wifely duties’.

From the get-go, though, we sense a spark of rebellion in Katherine. This is the 19th century, and her lot should be subjugation, but she openly challenges her husband’s edict about leaving the house. She bristles at her father-in-law’s refusal to share the particulars of their business, or why it drives Alexander from the estate for weeks at a time. There’s a calculating edge to even her most submissive moments, and we soon realise this is not another period drama about an unhappy wife learning to copy with country life.

It’s not long before Lady Macbeth turns to adultery, betrayal and murder. Katherine manipulates her milky-eyed maid (Naomi Ackle) and succumbs to the brusque advances of farmhand Sebastian (musician Cosmo Jarvis) before twisting his desire around her thumb. However, this is not a story like that of Love & Friendship, where a woman achieves supremacy in polite patriarchy through the weaponization of her sexuality (and intelligence). Rather, this is a story about how in this era, the only way for a woman to truly succeed is to be a calculating psychopath.

Despite drawing out our sympathies for Katherine early on, both Pugh and director William Oldroyd understand that she is no hero. Katherine’s tale follows the antihero arc so often told about men and so rarely about women; the story of a woman who achieves success – of a sort – through sociopathic manipulation and violence.

It’s testament to the strength of Pugh’s justly-heralded performance that she makes little effort to conceive this. When disempowered by the crude men of her life, her eyes snarl like a caged cat. When she upends the hegemony and regains some measure of autonomy, you can see her soften almost imperceptibly – she relaxes. And, inevitability, makes mistakes, since this is a drama.

As an interrogation of female bondage and the tools need to break through it, Lady Macbeth is a success. As a drama, though? I’m less convinced. The problem is that there just isn’t enough story here. As an adaptation of a 19th century Russian novella (ie not novel) running under 90 minutes, it’s already on the short end of the feature film scale. Once it’s clear – at around the 45 minute mark – that Katherine’s sociopathy knows no bounds, the film attempts to drag out proceedings with another, grimmer moral test (loosely adapted from the source text). But it’s at this point that the narrative tension – and thus, audience engagement – erodes. The film ends with Katherine rendered utterly unsympathetic – aided by a well-executed bit of subtext unveiling the racist and classist foundations of patriarchal cruelty – but it feels like a foregone conclusion at that point.

I do appreciate how finely Oldroyd and screenwriter Alice Birch prune the story down its core components, but I think that the film calls out for a richer sense of setting to truly elevate it. It’s a smart move to largely imply the extent of Katherine’s bondage rather than dwell in it, and Pugh’s performance is impressive for how unapologetically it broadcasts Katherine’s nefarious intentions. These choices leave the final act adrift and uncomfortable, offering up unjust suffering with little dramatic thrust to leaven the blow. That’s presumably the point, but it leaves the film feeling thematically potent but narratively flaccid.

3 stars

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