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Film Review: Lady Macbeth

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Directed by William Oldroyd and based on the novel Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District by Nikolai Leskov, Lady Macbeth is a darkly beautiful character study that wastes a powerful lead performance by Florence Pugh.

Katherine (Pugh) is a young woman sold into marriage to a cruel older man called Alexander (Paul Hilton) who treats her horribly. He doesn’t let her leave the house and has no intention of consummating their marriage. While he’s away on business, Katherine initiates a passionate affair with stable-hand Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis). Her infidelity leads to some dark, dangerous choices that will have a profound impact on the lives of everyone involved.

Katherine makes for a fascinatingly complex main character. Her abusive, loveless marriage, physical confinement and sexual frustration make her easy to sympathise with and even root for early on. Pugh adds a cold, commanding presence to her that fits perfectly with the characterisation and it’s fair to say Katherine steals most of the scenes she’s in.

Unfortunately, every other character is severely underwritten. Alexander and his father Boris (Christopher Fairbank) treat Katherine with nothing but extreme contempt in every single scene. It’s temporarily cathartic to see her turn the tables on them, but they’re so easy to hate that they’re just kind of boring.

Sebastian is similarly afflicted. Jarvis and Pugh have chemistry, but the relationship is mostly physical and Katherine is the only one trying to add some emotional complexity. Sebastian tries to develop some kind of character by eventually starting to feel guilt over the lengths he and Katherine go to, but it comes in far too late for him to be worth investing in. All the actors put in a fine performance, but are given very little to work with.

Everyone surrounding Katherine is fairly bland and one-note, to the point that it undercuts her character and Pugh’s performance. She’s good, but she can’t carry the whole movie on her back. Imagine if Walter White was the only interesting, fully realised character on Breaking Bad and there was no one else on the show that’s even remotely as interesting or worth caring about – it’s more or less where Lady Macbeth ends up feeling like.

As a result, the movie slowly but surely fizzles out and a lot of the later developments that are supposed to be deeply shocking and disturbing fall completely flat. The movie’s darkest moment which sees Katherine become utterly unsympathetic thoroughly lacks the gut punch it should be delivering.

The cinematography is wonderful. Long takes and static compositions emphasize the cold, minimalist grandeur of the main setting, which are the house and its grounds. It’s beautiful in a dark, chilling kind of way.

There’s a lot to like about Lady Macbeth, but there’s also far too much wasted potential on display. It traps a great character backed up by a stirring performance in what amounts to a mediocre story. For all its strengths, Lady Macbeth ultimately comes up short.

Lady Macbeth was released on Friday 28th April through Altitude.

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