When your film’s title references one of the most iconic villains of all time, you certainly set the bar high for yourself. It should go without saying that Lady Macbeth does not live up to her namesake – but not for a lack of trying. In fact, this is a solid thriller with some genuine surprises and truly dark twists. But, the real reason to see this film is for the stunning breakout performance from Florence Pugh.
Set in 19th century England, Pugh plays Katherine, a young bride sold into marriage with a middle-aged man who rotates between exerting a sadistic dominance over her and acting repulsed by her every action. But when her husband leaves on business matters, Katherine begins a passionate affair with a farm boy, Sebastian (singer Cosmo Jarvis). Isolated on their plantation, with no one but servants to bother them, Katherine and Sebastian quickly grow accustomed to their simple, intensely sexual lifestyle – so, when Katherine’s husband finally returns home, they begin plotting to maintain the world they’ve grown accustomed to.
There’s more to the story – a brilliant, extremely twisted third-act revelation changes the course of the movie entirely, but it’s best for audiences to go in knowing as little as possible so they can watch the manipulation unfold.
It cannot be overstated how great Florence Pugh is in this film, and how much of a role she plays in its success. Not only is Pugh in virtually every shot of the film, but she’s responsible for making a compelling lead character out of someone who is, in her own way, truly detestable.
As a character, Katherine is a fascinating one – the film does not hide the fact that she is a victim of systemic misogyny, and that the society she inhabits is one that tries to strip her of agency and shames her for having any sexual desire. At the same time, she is a sociopath who commits shocking acts of violence in order to maintain her own happiness, even turning a blind eye to her allies’ problematic attitudes for her own personal gain. Pugh revels in this grey area, taking every opportunity to have fun with the anti-heroine she’s playing, while also showing how the abuse she endures as a woman plays a part in her development as an antagonist.
More often than not, Katherine refuses to embrace the film’s melodramatic source material by screaming and going into monologues. Instead, she shows us her character’s calculating nature through her emotive eyes and facial ticks, and delivers many of her strongest scenes with minimal dialogue. And it’s worth noting that she has one of the best comedic scenes of the year – again, wordless – in which she displays a great understanding of physical comedy. It’s a performance that has to be seen to be believed, and alone is worth the price of admission.
The rest of the film works well, but mostly in fits and starts. In trying to convey how dull Katherine’s life is before meeting Sebastian, director William Oldroyd perhaps goes a bit overboard, forcing the film to drag on and even feel repetitive. Once the action starts, Oldroyd does a much better job at bringing suspense to his picture, with some scenes of violence being staged in creative, unorthodox ways that help make any predictable plot turns feel new. He also really hits a home run in the movie’s final third – which, again, should go unspoiled. But rest assured, it’s disturbing and intense in all the right ways.
Perhaps the biggest hindrance to Lady Macbeth is the ensemble cast, as none come close to matching Pugh’s brilliance in the leading role. It’s not entirely the cast’s fault. Many of the supporting characters are given little to no screen time, with some characters feeling more like a symbol of an idea or theme rather than a true figure in the story. And, as her costar, it must be noted that Cosmo Jarvis feels entirely miscast. He brings too much of a modern sensuality to the film, oftentimes feeling like a boy band member playing a part in a school play. He tries his hardest, but the film calls for someone who can blend into the film’s setting more thoroughly. Only Naomi Ackie, who plays Katherine’s servant, manages to impress.
But, again: Florence Pugh is reason alone to see this film. Even with a handful of flaws, Lady Macbeth announces the arrival of a major new talent, and gives her some great material to work with, showing what she’s truly capable of. As a thriller, Lady Macbeth is solid, specifically as it challenges audiences in its final twenty minutes. But as an actor’s showcase, it’s hard to do better than this.
Overall Rating: 7 out of 10