By Chloe Scaling
Lady Macbeth tells the story of Katherine, a young woman trapped in both a loveless marriage and her husband’s large house in the northeast countryside. Like Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth, Katherine is a woman obsessed, but her mission is not to put her husband in a position of power, rather to remain with her lover, Sebastian the groomsman on her husband’s estate.
William Oldroyd’s debut feature film left me intrigued and captivated, particularly by Florence Pugh’s portrayal of Katherine. In a Q&A after the screening, Oldroyd, a Durham University alumnus and acclaimed theatre director, acknowledged that Katherine is not a “likeable” character, but that hers was a story he wanted to tell. He pointed out that unlikeable male characters are more often accepted, so we should not shy away from showing complex female characters in this way. Katherine is a young woman who longs to be outside and free. As she is physically contained, in the corsets she wears and in the house she cannot leave, it is inevitable that she will want to break free in a dramatic way.
Though her power is taken from her as her father-in-law and husband’s orders to stay inside, Katherine seizes power throughout the film. Unusually for a female lead, especially in this era, she is unafraid to exert physical force to do this. Demonstrating the power her class gives her, she pushes servants over on multiple occasions, with her violence escalating further as she becomes unstoppable. In fact, her relationship with Sebastian begins as he enters her bedroom uninvited, intending to rape her as an act of revenge in the face of the authority she exercised over him and other workers earlier. Intent on taking back control of the situation, Katherine embarks on a passionate affair with him.
The colour-blind casting of the film allowed both a racially diverse cast and an exploration of race in 1865 Britain, as well as gender and class: something few period dramas achieve. Not only were people of colour cast as servants, but as members of a middle-class family later in the film. Oldroyd highlighted that, when doing research for the film, the team had found evidence of non-white families in the north east of England, so these casting choices are not historically inaccurate. Though race is not explicitly mentioned, Anna, a black servant, is often referred to as an animal, mistreated by both Sebastian and Katherine’s father-in-law, Boris. It is unclear whether this also happens to the white servants of the house who appear as unnamed characters.
Gender is more explicitly addressed, as Boris says “I bought you” to Katherine and refers to her inability to “do her duty” as a wife and provide an heir to the estate, though he doesn’t know that Katherine may be able to bear a child, if her husband had sex with her. The patriarchal nature of Victorian society is also seen through the controlling nature of both Boris and Alexander, Katherine’s husband. Katherine is clearly stifled by this, and it encourages her to wreak revenge.
The use of silence in the film was striking from the very beginning. For me, it echoed the boredom Katherine must have felt stuck inside the house and the emptiness of her new life. Oldroyd commented that a ticking clock in the room would have made life in the house even more torturous for her. The northeastern landscape and isolated nature of Katherine’s estate is bleak but beautiful, echoing the loneliness Katherine experiences. The repetition of actions such as Katherine’s servant Anna opening the shutters in the former’s bedroom; Katherine sitting on a certain sofa in the house; and Anna collecting mushrooms in the woods also add to the sense of the monotonous nature of Katherine’s life. There is no wonder she looks for excitement in her affair with Sebastian.
On the whole, Lady Macbeth is to be praised for its diversity and talented cast, stunning cinematography and the strength of its protagonist, if you can call Katherine a protagonist. It was a privilege to see a preview of this fantastic film and to briefly meet William Oldroyd after the Q&A.
‘Lady Macbeth’ is screening now at the Tyneside and Emprie cinemas, Newcastle.
Photograph: Gillie Rhodes