I caught a preview of Lady Macbeth at the Watershed, Bristol, accompanied by a Q&A by director William Oldroyd. The film releases to UK cinemas on April 28.
She’s not that Lady Macbeth. Not the famous one. Not the, ‘Out, damned spot!’ and the ‘Come, you spirits/ that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,/ and fill me from the crown to the toe topful/ of direst cruelty.’ That one talks more. Besides, her play and her character are named for her husband. This one’s called Katherine, I’m not sure we hear her called by any other name. It’s pretty safe to assume it’s not Macbeth.
Because her husband ain’t no Macbeth himself. He blows around, a sack of wind, miserably trying to justify his existence. When he spits at Katherine that she’s just another thing his father purchased for him, along with his house and his lands, it’s like he don’t even realise how bad he’s dunking on himself. Their wedding is an affair attended only by their servants, and when his father is seeing to affairs in the city he’s away dealing with the ‘local matters.’
So, always does it seem to be the concern of failing men to control their women. It’s notable, and thankfully so, that screenwriter Alice Birch (working from Nikolai Leskov’s novel Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk) and director William Oldroyd, shy away from the salacious. Katherine’s revenge is not the result of a moment, or an act, but of a life lived under an order that strips her of agency and freedom. Waking in that same bed every day, and knowing nothing can deviate. Then one might get ideas.
No, the abuse is cold and sustained and perfunctory, and all the world is a tool of it. And yes, the dude also is also sexually demeaning, but you don’t need too much help hating all the men in a film which casts them all to look like the forgotten paintings in Ilya Repin’s portraiture.
Is there something whack about the way she runs into the arms of a farmhand who she apprehends sexually assaulting one of her maids? Probably, it’s what you get when you’re adapting a 19th century novel. The time that brought us hysteria was never the place for an unproblematic feminist text. It’s not made better here, the dude is so gross, the scene really uncomfortable. ‘Because women need passion,’ says the author 150 years ago, ‘women need fire, women need a lusty farmhand to throw them in the hay and…’ If the men who got hot under their tight 1800s collars writing things like that were the Casanovas they imagined themselves to be, maybe we’d have fewer stories with these shitty themes.
Once they start dating, all this is forgotten, the guy reverts to being sweet and handsome and a seemingly good lay. Just forget about the sexual assault bit, it’ll make his later naiveté more convincing. With them together the world is set off balance, the camera gets shakier, the picture gets brighter, the places once so square and empty seem fuller. Their efforts to keep it that way cost them. It’s not a sex positive film.
The farmhand is called Sebastian and he’s played by Cosmo Jarvis. The chemistry between him and Florence Pugh’s Katherine is so good it comes a long way in overcoming the circumstances of their meeting. It’s interesting, these feel like two very modern performances, they’re not doing anything different, they’re just not being Victorian. There’s that Mike Leigh quote about his period pieces, he says something like he researched a lot about manners and etiquette before realising that people in private would act as they damn well please. That mingling of private and public space here comes to us through time, the actors stripping and transposing manner, moving in and out of performance. It’s accomplished work.
So too is Naomi Ackie’s Anna who, like, I ain’t sure I’ve seen her before but she is bonus in this film, unwilling maidservant, reluctant accomplice. With barely anything to say she packs so much into her silences. I want to see her more.
Which, director William Oldroyd has been saying he wasn’t thinking about race when casting, sure, cool dude, if you say so. He comes from the world of theatre, which in the UK actually tries to be pretty good at finding diverse casts. We just always feel like we have to be self conscious about it. There’s a lot of talk, especially in the land of Shakespeare, about finding diverse historical roles amongst your Othellos and your Shylocks. Finding a place for the present in the past.
It wants to be a strong feminist film, but it’s so tied up in its source material it doesn’t feel like it’s contributing anything new to the discussion. Guy ended up making a film about how rich white people screw over poor non-white people, doing so in a way that makes the very structure of the film contextually and thematically relevant.
People in festival screenings were apparently applauding when the evil men got offed. Good. Anyone would. Easy to fool yourself into thinking this revolutionary feminism as a result. It ain’t, but when we talking about where to find a place for a multicultural history, this might just be a good place to start.
Image courtesy of Altitude