Film Review: LADY MACBETH (UK 2016) ***

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lady macbeth.jpgSet in 19th century rural England, young bride who has been sold into marriage to a middle-aged man discovers an unstoppable desire within herself as she enters into an affair with a worker on her estate.

Director: William Oldroyd
Writers: Nikolai Leskov (based on the novel by), Alice Birch (screenplay)
Stars: Florence Pugh, Christopher Fairbank, Cosmo Jarvis

Review by Gilbert Seah

LADY MACBETH is not based on the Shakespearean play. It is a 2016 British drama film based on the novel “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District” by Nikolai Leskov.

The setting is the year 1865 in rural England, when a young woman, Catherine (Florence Pugh), is in a loveless marriage to an older man, Alexander. They live with Alexander’s father, Boris (Christopher Fairbank), and Catherine is forced to maintain a strict schedule and prevented from leaving the house. Boris scolds Catherine for not carrying out her conjugal duties but Alexander (Paul Hilton) shows no physical interest in her. As Alexander tells Catherine at one point in the film: “My father bought you along with the piece of land not fit for a cow to graze upon.”

One day both Boris and Alexander have to leave the estate for separate business matters, and Catherine is left alone with the housemaid, Anna (Naomi Ackie), and is free to explore the area to alleviate her boredom. One day she discovers Anna being suspended from the ground in an outhouse by the men who work on the land. She is attracted to one of them, Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), and the next day deliberately encounters him on the land. The affair that begins causes Catherine to take matters into her own hands for her own good.

The idea of mistreated wife, especially by her in-laws during an arranged marriage has always been favourite film fodder, (my fondest film on the subject being Deepa Metha’s HEAVEN ON EARTH). In LADY MACBETH, matters are made worse when she
falls in love with one of her husband’s workers at the estate and the father-in-law finds out.
One of the most satisfying things about the film is watching Catherine’s personality change from tied abused wife to Lady of the House to the ultimate devil. Once her husband and father-in-law are away and she left alone, her true nature slowly emerges. The scene where this occurs when she makes her stance against her workers shirking their duties is one of the film’s best segments. But the film is not without other prized set-ups.

Cruelty prevails in the rich estate in rural England. Catherine’s lover is flogged and locked up. Class structure is prevalent. Catherine is bound by duty and class. Only when her sexual desires are aroused that she is able to break free from the imposed prison set up by the society and structure of the times.

Director is playful with the relationship between Catherine and her black maid. When brushing her hair, the maid Anna does in extremely hard causing Catherine pain, as Anna also does when pulling her girdle tight or scrubbing her back in the bath. What are Anna’s motives? Is Anna getting back at her mistress or is she somehow trying to show some power over her mistress? At times, Anna smiles kindly at her mistress and at other times, Catherine has to ask her: “What is wrong with you?”
LADY MACBETH premiered last year at the Toronto International Film Festival. It has so far garnered favourable reviews, this one included. A deliciously enjoyable wicked period piece that even males will enjoy when watching the fairer sex dominate.


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