Stop calling Lady Macbeth a feminist revenge flick

This period pic is about a woman twisted by trauma – but it doesn’t make any sense

LADY MACBETH (William Oldroyd). 89 minutes. Opens Friday (July 28). See listing. Rating: NN

Why are critics called Lady Macbeth an exhilaratingly subversive feminist revenge film?

In William Oldroyd’s debut feature, set in the 1860s, Katherine (Florence Pugh) is sold in marriage to a sexually impotent mining magnate (Paul Hilton), who’s dominated by his sadistic father (Christopher Fairbank). She’s basically imprisoned in their huge house until her captors leave on business and she’s left to her own devices. 

She begins a torrid affair with Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), one of the estate workers, starts treating the servants poorly, especially her Black maid Anna (Naomi Ackie) and, thrilling to her newfound power, makes the house her playpen. Until her father-in-law comes home and Katherine turns into a serial killer.

What’s feminist about this? Katherine first encounters Sebastian as he and the other estate hands are collectively sexually harassing Anna. Why is this a turn-on? And their first erotic encounter constitutes a classic no means yes scenario that sets back the discourse on rape at least five decades.

A generous reading of Alice Birch’s adaptation of Nikolai Leskov’s book Lady Macbeth Of Mtsensk would explain Katherine’s descent into dreadful behaviour as a study of a traumatized woman’s desperation. Powerless, imprisoned, herself sexually frustrated, she’s looking for sex under any circumstances. And having been denied everything, she’ll do whatever it takes to keep Sebastian, the one thing she wants. But as I said, that’s a generous reading.

On the narrative level, the film doesn’t make a lot of sense. If the household patriarchs are so bent on controlling Katherine, why do they leave her alone in the manor? What’s happened to the business once the men disappear? Why is there no criminal investigation? How is it that the household carries on as if nothing’s happened? If the film is meant as a loose allegory – so let’s not worry about plot holes – what’s the point? Women can do bad things, too? Not exactly a revelation.

But the filmmaking is excellent. On a very tight budget (hence the short run time), Oldroyd makes you forget that there’s rarely more than two people in every scene. He does wonders creating the gloomy mood of the manor on the moor, with the thunk of its doors and its ever-apparent draftiness. 

The story, unbelievable as it is, is absorbing. Oldroyd gets a riveting performance from Pugh, whose icy demeanour belies the fury beneath. You can practically see her brain churning on to the next plot. 

An early sequence in which Anna straps Katherine into her corset is clearly intended to evoke the strictures under which women were forced to live. But it’s impossible to root for Katherine. She fights back, for sure, but then she behaves more appallingly than her oppressors.

Camille Paglia might call her a feminist hero. Me? I’m not buying it – or much else about Lady Macbeth.

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