2017 has been a good year for women in film. The astronomical success of Patti Jenkins’ Wonder Woman is no small feat in a male dominated industry. Sofia Coppola’s period piece The Beguiled is another film that looks at the treatment of women in another time through a modern political lens to tell a meaningful story. When trailers for William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth started making their rounds, it appeared to be a film in the same vein. However, due to a fragmented style of storytelling, this film is a misstep for feminist cinema.
In 19th century England, Katherine Lester has been reluctantly sold into marriage with a middle-aged man. Through boredom and desire, her true self awakens during an affair with a farm hand on her husband’s estate.
For his feature length directorial debut, William Oldroyd chose to adapt Nikolai Leskov’s novel Lady Macbeth of Mstensk District. I personally have not read the novel, so I perused a few plot synopses before writing this. There is no correlation to the Lady Macbeth of Shakespeare, other than her namesake to highlight her deeds as an anti-heroine. This film almost sullies the scared name of Lady Macbeth with how incomplete the story feels.
The film begins with a medium close over the shoulder shot of Katherine on her wedding day. This cuts to another medium close shot of her from the front, center frame. The groom is not shown at all save for a small bit of his shoulder, and the guests are completely ignored. After that is a jarring cut into Katherine being prepped by her servant for her wedding night and subsequent consummation of the union with her new husband. The scene is fine in establishing just how forced this marriage is, as he has Katherine disrobe on the complete opposite side of the room. This scene then leads into the husband absent, due to being called away for business, and Katherine being placed in some position of power on the estate. This plot point is a huge juxtaposition to the scenes where Katherine was shown to be completely powerless, and this is just the tip of the iceberg for this jarringly broken style of filmmaking.
According to the novel, Katherine is blamed for being unable to provide a child even though it is her husband who is impotent. The film makes it seem as if the husband is just disgusted by her. There is one rather uncomfortable scene in their marital bedroom where she is forced to face a wall while he observes her from a distance that gives credence to this view. Viewers can assume that due to lack of sexual fulfillment, Katherine becomes increasingly bored. This is where Sebastien, the farm hand is introduced.
Sebastien is kind of shoehorned into the film. He appears as an almost bystander in two scenes before he shows up at Katherine’s bedroom door looking for something to do out of boredom. This is where the film started to become gross. Now while the earlier sex scenes in the movie were uncomfortable, they served a purpose in terms of the plot. Key feminist and heroine stories rely on scenes of men oppressing women to fuel their arc. This is the scene that completely undermines any feminist values this Oldroyd was aiming for. Sebastien forces his way into Katherine’s bedroom. Katherine tries to stop him and yells at him to leave, but he ignores her as he forces himself upon her. Again, this would have been fine for the story if Katherine did not do a complete 180 in this scene. Not only does her character submit to Sebastien in this scene, she seems to actively participate in the following action. This is an odd choice and clear deviation from source material that bring the whole film down.
The second act of the film follows Katherine and Sebastien’s affair and the subsequent consequences of their actions. This is the strongest portion of the movie, and saved it for being absolutely abhorrent. While the fragmented editing continues to further obfuscate the timeline, there are some nicely executed scenes in the climax of this arc that were entertaining and were faithful to Leskov’s work. For anyone interested in seeing this movie, spoilers will be avoided to keep the surprise for the film’s genuinely good moments.
In the films final act, there is a lot of allusion to certain elements that never come to fruition. Katherine’s husband illegitimate son (in the novel, his nephew) appears, which just further convolutes earlier plot points. Through some clever framing, the film hints that Katherine may be pregnant but has no intention on doing anything with this information. The film climaxes in a torturously uncomfortable scene that ultimately prevented this movie from being even close to good.
William Oldroyd’s directorial debut was a fine attempt, but ultimately Lady Macbeth is just too bad to be good. From inconsistent characters to strange deviations from the source material, the film betrays its feminist goals with no justification. Katherine had the potential to be a strong icon for feminist film, but ultimately gets sidelined by her lust for Sebsatien. The plot of the film ends before a whole different portion of the novel happens, which would have been a more interesting film. Ultimately, this film is entirely skippable. Go read or watch an adaptation of Macbeth to get a fill of the truly noteworthy Lady Macbeth.
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