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Non-Review Review: Lady Macbeth

This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2017.

Lady Macbeth is a very beautiful, and very arch film. Perhaps a little too arch.

Writer Alice Birch and director William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth is a very loose adaptation of Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District by Nikolai Leskov, adapting the Russian novel to British surroundings. Ari Wegner’s cinematography is stunning, capturing the beauty of these new surroundings and meticulously framing the characters. Oldroyd films Lady Macbeth at a Kubrickian remove, keeping the camera still and often facing his characters head-on in a way that makes it seem like the cast are staring out of the film at the audience watching.

Thinly-veiled contempt.

Thinly-veiled contempt.

Birch’s script has an incredibly dark sense of humour, a wry grimace juxtaposed against the horrors that its characters inflict upon one another and the sense of bleakness that pervades the film. Indeed, the film balances on a knife-edge in terms of tone, shifting skilfully between moods from one scene to the next. At one moment, Lady Macbeth is a thoughtful character study, at another a cheeky feminist critique, then a pitch black comedy. Lady Macbeth is an impressive work in any technical sense.

However, there is a pervading coldness to the film, one reinforced by the intensity upon which the camera focuses upon characters who keep themselves at a remove. For all the polished sheen of Lady Macbeth, its characters remain heavily internalised and take their time expressing themselves through action. The result is a film that moves far too slowly, keeping its characters both opaque and inert for far too much of the runtime. Lady Macbeth is a very pretty film, but one that mistakes silence for profundity.

Return of the Mac(beth).

Return of the Mac(beth).

There is a lot to like about Lady Macbeth. It looks stunning, whether in those long takes of the camera studying characters across the breakfast table or in those shots that establish the ethereal mood of the surrounding countryside that reflects the temperaments of various characters. The performances are quite good across the board; particularly Florence Pugh as Katherine, a young woman sold into marriage to an uncaring landed family, and Naomi Ackie as Anna, the servant girl who finds herself rendered complicit in horrible acts.

Lady Macbeth has a wonderful sense of tone. It conveys mood very well, whether in the establishing scenes that render the reality of Katherine’s situation in perfect clarity or in the later scenes of Katherine skirting the boundaries imposed by proper society. One of the film’s more engaging recurring motifs involves the family’s attempts to restrain Katherine and her rebellion against it; whether the repeated insistence that she not breath the air outside the house, or a particularly brazen flaunting of her husband’s authority at the midpoint.

It's hip to be Kubrickian.

It’s hip to be Kubrickian.

Indeed, one of the most endearing aspects of Lady Macbeth lies in the unpredictability of its tone. Lady Macbeth is a film that invites uncomfortable laughter from the audience as scenes rooted in the concrete reality of period film drift into the realm of absurdity. More than that, Lady Macbeth is not afraid to brutally silence those awkward chuckles with a perfectly-timed act of sheer brutality, helping to keep the audience off-guard. It is a very delicate balancing act, and Alice Birch and William Oldroyd deserve a lot of credit.

In fact, this balancing act is only rendered possible by the fact that Lady Macbeth remains at a remove from its characters. Birch’s script and Pugh’s performance do an excellent job of communicating why Katherine is acting in the way that she is, what motivates her decisions. However, the film also keeps the audience at arm’s length so that Katherine’s actions can still catch the viewer off-guard. In fact, one vital piece of exposition about an event early in the film only comes in the final few minutes. It is a clever strategy that pays dividends.

Lady in waiting.

Lady in waiting.

However, it also comes at a cost. Lady Macbeth is so far removed from Katherine that she almost feels like an abstraction. Her motivations are laid out very well in the opening ten minutes, and she lashes out three or four times over the course of a ninety-minute film. Lady Macbeth spends an inordinate amount of time just staring at Katherine, as if wondering what is going on in her head. However, the film lays out as much of her internal thoughts as it ever will in those opening ten minutes, allowing her actions to define her for the rest of the film.

The result is a film that feels very sedate and very still, stirred to life in those moments where Katherine takes action and feeling indulgent in the other moments that it sits staring at her. In an effective metaphor for this storytelling choice, Anna spends a significant portion of the film shocked to silence by one horrific event. Robbed of her voice, Anna is forced to express herself only through gesture, while still acting in the role of a house servant. However, Lady Macbeth is a film that mistakes silence for profundity.

Table for later.

Table for later.

Lady Macbeth is a beautiful and thoughtful film in its best moments, albeit one that feels far too lifeless for far too long.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Audi Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 2

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