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The Lady Macbeth of Northumberland

Tim Kroenert |  20 June 2017


Lady Macbeth (MA). Director: William Oldroyd. Starring: Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis, Naomi Ackie, Christopher Fairbank, Paul Hilton. 89 minutes

The evocation in the title of one of the Bard's most famous tragic characters is mostly emblematic. Catherine (Pugh), the anti-hero of this psychologically disturbing British period drama, is not averse to scheming, manipulation, and even violence when circumstances call for it, in pursuit of her goals. But unlike her Shakespearean predecessor, there is no incapacitating remorse in store for her.

Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, the 1865 Nikolai Leskov novella on which the film is based, contains echoes of Flaubert's Madame Bovary, which had been published almost a decade before. Its central figure Katerina foreshadows Lady Chatterley too, which was still over half a century away. All three examine the pursuit of actualisation by women in repressive societies, through sexuality and self-agency.

In Oldroyd's hands, Leskov's story becomes an examination of power — who has it, how it can be gained by those who lack it, how it is used once it is attained — that feels thoroughly modern, despite its late 19th century setting. He transplants the action from rural Russia to chilly Northumberland, whose wind-wracked hills and fields enhance the sense of alienation that tortures Catherine.

She arrives a new bride, along with her husband Alexander (Hilton), to take up residence in a luxurious homestead owned by her father-in-law Boris (Fairbank). Quickly we get a sense of how little control she has over her destiny. Alexander demands she remain inside the house at all times; when one evening she wishes to go to bed early, Boris orders her to remain awake until her husband is ready to join her.

She seems part of the furniture, literally; there is a recurring image of her sitting alone on a sofa, centrally placed within the frame, surrounded by her keepers' opulent possessions, as ornamental as a china doll. Her maid Anna (Ackie), too, treats her like an ornament, to be brushed and cleaned and vigorously girdled with no concern for the young woman's physical comfort.

At night, lack of sexual fulfilment is added to the boredom and angst of Catherine's days. Alexander's treatment of her in this regard further underscores her role in the household as an attractive object. On their wedding night he watches her disrobe then climbs into bed with his back to her. Later he makes her stand naked against a wall while he masturbates on the far side of the room.

Florence Pugh in Lady Macbeth

Yet she is not the most powerless person in the house. The maid Anna is made by Boris to crawl like a dog for a crime Catherine committed. Anna's dehumanisation is underlined when she is stripped naked and trussed up like a pig by the servants who work the grounds. Catherine comes to see Anna, in her powerlessness, as a cog in the manipulations she later sets in motion.


"This is a world where power is acutely stratified by various intersections of wealth, class, gender and race."


Catherine is intrigued by the ringleader in the 'pig' incident, farmhand Sebastian (Jarvis). While Alexander is absent for an extended period, Sebastian comes to her room, and his attempted rape transitions into willing intercourse. Here, there are resonances of yet another strong female literary figure, Dominique Francon, whose affair with Ayn Rand's 'ideal man' Howard Roark began in similar fashion.

Given his social status, Sebastian's power relative to Catherine's is diminutive. By the time she warns him, at the height of their affair, that she'll kill him if he leaves her, we know (as does he) that she is capable of it. From a place of near total oppression she has discovered in him a path to independence and individual satisfaction, and will go to increasingly brutal lengths in order to defend it.

In short this is a world where power is acutely stratified by various intersections of wealth, class and gender. (Race, too: Anna is black in addition to being poor, subservient and female, yet a black woman of established wealth who arrives at the house in the third act exercises power over not only her, but also Catherine.) And violence as ever has the capacity to reshape the entire landscape.

The film is largely amoral. Perhaps taking German filmmaker Michael Haneke as a touch point, Oldroyd (assisted by Australian cinematographer Ari Wegner's considered composition) applies a cool detachment equally to beauty, banality and brutality. As a result the film's considerations of power are academic rather than merely cautionary. They leave room for reflection on the part of the viewer.


Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is editor of Eureka Street.



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Submitted comments

"Sebastian comes to her room, and his attempted rape transitions into willing intercourse" ... what a tired old 'romantic' cliche; I'd be interested to know the ratio of real women who have suddenly found themselves willing participants in their own rape, compared to the fictionalised occurrences.

Kate Makowiecka 22 June 2017

Thanks for your comment Kate. To be clear, nothing about the scene (or the film) is romantic. I found the scene difficult to stomach (as I did the comparable Rand scene), for the reasons you allude to. It does however speak to the ways in which power is explored in the film, particularly to the various ways in which the character of Catherine asserts or responds to power in different contexts.

Tim Kroenert 22 June 2017

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