Lady Macbeth is based on the 1865 novel ‘Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District’ by Nikolai Leskov. Although the original Russian setting has been changed to northern England, the character names seem to have been retained, hence the out-of-context Boris, Alexander, Katherine and Sebastian. The setting and cinematography are beautiful – there are some stunning scenes out on the moors, and a recurrent and hauntingly beautiful scene where the Lady Macbeth character, Katherine, sits on a chaise long in the living room, looking straight into the camera, wearing stunning blue dresses.
Katherine (Florence Pugh) has been bought by a wealthy mine owner to bear heirs by his son. She is effectively imprisoned in the family’s house on the moors – she is repeatedly discouraged by both Boris, the mine owner, and his faithful black servant Anna – from wandering onto the moors for fear of catching a chill – and seems destined for a loveless and joyless existence. Her husband is abusive and shows her no love or sexual interest, and the house is dour and cold.
The theme for the movie seems to be how far a person’s actions can be forgiven by their ill treatment by others? Katherine is established as the movie’s heroine – partly by the repeated use of the ‘portrait’ technique where Katherine is the sole focus of our attention. We can see that she has a miserable existence, is abused by all those close to her, is imprisoned and constantly under surveillance and although still a young person, is isolated from any sense of fun. As the movie progresses she takes step after step towards releasing herself from her situation, in the process committing a number of sins. How shall we judge her? At which point, if at all, do we lose sympathy?
Step one in Katherine’s dance is the poisoning murder of her abusive father-in-law. The guy is clearly a monster who treats Katherine as a slave – he tells her that he bought her along with some worthless land for the sole reason of giving him an heir.
Step two, she takes a lover from amongst the servants. Her husband is cold and neglectful, and she is starved of fun.
When her husband returns to the estate unexpectedly, and let’s it be known that he is aware of her affair, she murders him too.
Up to this point I think Katherine would have retained the sympathy of most audience members. The next step is where feelings diverge.
A venal local woman turns up at the house with papers that supposedly prove that her husband has admitted responsibility for a young black boy, whose mother has recently died. The woman moves into the house on the pretext of looking after the boy. Katherine is now moved out of her room to make way for the boy, and more importantly, is no longer able to live openly with her lover. The boy, although completely innocent, is very inconvenient to Katherine. No surprises what happens next – although as a serial killer Katherine shows a remarkable lack of pattern – a poisoning, a bashing and this time, a smothering.
Unfortunately for Katherine, her explanation for the boy’s demise isn’t accepted, and she ends up having to accuse her lover and family domestic. Her lover had accused her of the murder, and Anna, the domestic – in a sort of transference – had continually abused her by pulling her hair, scalding her and roughly treating her when doing up her corset, and had betrayed her a number of times to the mine owner and the local priest. Knowing that her accusations against the black servants were likely to be believed, and that they were likely to be hung as a result… were they fair game?
My score: an interesting and beautiful movie – 9/10