Lady Macbeth opens next week, which will be the first time audiences and some critics will have a chance to see Florence Pugh as the complicated, titular character. The breakthrough film is a first for director William Oldroyd. With a 94% on Rotten Tomatoes, Lady Macbeth is clearly beloved by the critics. Raw, stripped down, and never predictable, this is a film of sexual oppression of women.
Everything about the film is top notch, from the cinematography to the costumes to the art direction; it is a bit reminiscent of last year’s The Witch, though minus the supernatural elements. Lady Macbeth isn’t Shakespeare’s Macbeth, it’s worth noting, but the title does sort of color the story. It’s based on the 1865 novella Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk by Nikolai Leskov. Oppression, adultery, explosive sexuality – what could possibly go wrong? Well, the film is really about how the oppressed can sometimes find power in the oppression of others. Here, in casting Naomi Ackie in the role of the black servant girl Anna, race is introduced into the film to address that kind of power play. Although the film itself doesn’t deal directly with race, the casting hints at these deeper themes.
Lady Macbeth is disturbing, to be sure, but the beauty in Pugh’s work is how well she modulates the conflicted feelings and obligations she’s burdened with.
Variety’s Guy Lodge writes:
At one level an extreme, unflinching feminist cautionary tale about the ultimate perils of chauvinistically containing or instructing a woman’s desires and impulses, “Lady Macbeth” also works as a fascinatingly inverted character study — wherein continued abuse and silencing gradually makes an oppressor of a victim.
It’s a fine-line exercise that requires an actress both commanding and sympathetic enough to pull it off: Pugh, hitherto best known for her small but crucially vivid turn as a charismatic schoolgirl in Carol Morley’s British arthouse hit “The Falling,” doesn’t miss a note of Katherine’s complex, under-the-skin transformation. A child still getting to grips with the womanhood she had unwillingly thrust upon her, let alone the challenging, primal moral transgressions she has made in the name of independence, she’s a whirl of petulance and more mature anger, of confusion and seductive self-possession. Pugh folds these contradictions into one composed, consistent characterization, her smoothly expressive face giving us all the text between the lines of her spare dialogue.
Pugh is a firestarter, for sure, and we’ll be seeing much more of her in the coming years. She’s good enough here to earn an Oscar nod.