Friday, 29 December 2017

Lady Macbeth (2017) - Movie Review
The plot: In 1860’s England, Katherine (Florence Pugh) has been sold into marriage to Alexander (Paul Hilton), expected to conceive an heir for him. However, when both he and his demanding father Boris (Christopher Fairbank) leave the estate for a few days on business, Katherine is given a chance to exercise some personal freedom. She takes advantage of the situation, starting a passionate affair with estate worker Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), and she starts to like the idea of acting as her own person. And she will do anything to keep that freedom.

Pugh is quite haunting as our focal point character, starting out well as the reserved victim and only getting more unsettling the further she comes out of her shell. This is the kind of performance where every syllable, every movement, every cold expression she wields lends further insight into how calculating she would become by film’s end. Hilton as her husband is basically The Patriarchy embodied by a single person, showing all of the callous and rather vulgar objectification one would expect from such a personification. Then there’s Fairbank as his father, who is somehow even further down that rabbit hole in how steadfastly he insists that Katherine fulfill her “duties” as a wife.
Jarvis as Katherine’s lover has a lot of welcome chemistry with Pugh, and his later scenes allow him to make use of how he becomes the only sane person left in the main cast. Naomi Ackie as the Lesters’ housemaid Anna is good as the quiet and eventually frightened observer to Katherine’s vengeance but… I don’t know, something tells me that this role could have fleshed out into something more. As it stands, her presence in the film raises some uncomfortable questions, which is saying something given what is explicitly shown on-screen.

One of the more antiquated perspectives on marriage is that it is simply a matter of ownership. A woman marries a man and she is meant to serve him in whatever manner he so pleases. This film starts out chin-deep in this mindset, with Katherine being presented as literal property that was bought just so she could wed Alexander. Alexander, in turn, treats like a slab of meat that exists only for him, making her strip down just so that he can do his own Louis CK routine. To add insult to injury, Boris places intense pressure on Katherine to give his son a legitimate heir, something kind of difficult when you’re married to a man who shows no real interest in copulation. Picture yourself in that kind of position, where you are being ordered to fulfil two diametrically opposite tasks, and it’s far too easy to understand why even the smallest taste of freedom would do something to Katherine’s mindset. Like I went into when looking at Raw, human beings tend to embrace whatever amount of self-liberation they can get… and some people end up taking it to certain extremes.

Right off the bat, this has the makings of a feminist empowerment story, one where a mistreated woman throws off the shackles of The Patriarchy. However, that goal ends up becoming murkier and murkier as the film goes on. We see the more positive side of Katherine’s newfound zeal, purely out of how she actually finds joy and a reason to smile out of her current situation, but we also see her vengeance take the form of something rather sinister. A very murderous kind of sinister. Admittedly, because her chosen victims (initially) are presented as complete monsters, there is definite catharsis to be gotten out of their eventual fates. This is especially true with how deliciously cold Pugh plays the part, turning the constant tutoring to make her appear “proper” into something quite devilish. And then a child gets involved… yeah. Without getting into direct spoilers, what starts out as an intriguingly twisted take on period drama feminism, it soon turns into something of a different creature. A creature that makes erring on the side of sympathy with our main character a bit of a trial.

But then again, why should that be a problem? Something I’m learning quickly from increasing my intake of female-driven cinema is that women don’t really get that much variety in terms of character motivation. 9 times out of 10, it directly involves a member of the opposite sex and the implication that they can only be happy with that person. What’s more, whenever an exception to that comes out, there’s always some form of outcry with sheltered dudes trying to discuss “the proper place for women” like they have any fucking clue where that is. The point I’m trying to get here is that women playing the bad guy who don’t need no man? There’s absolutely a place for that. One that doesn’t need to be secluded in the annals of Disney and Harry Potter. Being evil can be downright awesome sometimes; it’s why villains are often the most remembered characters in a shit-ton of popular movies.
Where this fits into this film specifically is how the film never asks us to sympathise with Katherine. Understand her motives, sure, but that never translates into us thinking that what we’re seeing is “the right thing”. Because of that, even if the actions taken enter into the genuinely heinous, it sits easier because this is someone who isn’t designed to be strictly hated or liked. She is her own person, with the film serving more as a psych profile than a tale of overcoming oppression. As I’m quickly developing a habit of saying, representation matters and representing the less-than-virtuous is a big part of that equation.

All in all, this is a solid if occasionally troubling feature. Pugh’s central performance goes from objectified waif into queen of hellfire with a smoothness that I’d call worrying if it wasn’t so bloody cathartic, the visuals from director William Oldroyd and DOP Ari Wegner get a lot of mileage out of a surprisingly minor budget (this thing doesn’t even hit the million-dollar mark and you never would have guessed it otherwise), and the writing handles a remarkable tightrope walk between setting up motivation and framing the reaction so that Katherine isn’t made out to be the hero or even an anti-hero. She is a person with all the murky psychology that entails, and that on its own is reason enough for this to be recognised as something worthy.

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