****THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!! THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!!!****
My Rating : 2 out of 5 stars
My Recommendation : SKIP IT.
Lady MacBeth, written by Alice Berch and directed by William Oldroyd, is the story of Katherine, a young woman in 1860's rural England, stuck in a stifling marriage and a suffocating culture. The film stars Florence Pugh as Katherine, along with Cosmo Jarvis, Paul Hilton and Naomi Ackie in supporting roles.
Lady MacBeth has all the trappings of an art house gem, an exquisite period setting and costumes, a breakout performance from a talented young actress and a political sub-text of female empowerment in the face of a controlling patriarchy. Sadly, Lady MacBeth is not the sum of its parts and winds up being little more than a pretender to the art house crown.
The biggest problem with Lady MacBeth is that it tries to do too much, too fast and goes too far. The reason period pieces like this work is because they set up constraints upon the characters in the form of cultural customs and traditions, and they force the characters to struggle against or break free of them. The cinematic drama is born and bred in that struggle. That is why people loved Downton Abbey for example, or Netflix's recent hit The Crown, those shows put the restraints of tradition upon human emotions and yearnings and we all watched to see the characters resist against them. The problem with Lady MacBeth is that those traditional and cultural obstacles are too easily discarded, ignored and overcome, rendering the struggle against them dramatically impotent and entirely moot.
The first third of the film is very compelling because those cultural hindrances are front and center and are a cross that seems unbearable for Katherine. Her confinement to her husband's house is palpably stultifying. Director Oldroyd makes the interesting choice to shoot all of the indoor scenes as static shots to effectively enhance the rigid sense of emotional suffocation. Oldroyd also wisely contrasts this static indoor approach with hand held shots when Katherine finally goes outside, indicating her sense of freedom and abandon.
But then the train goes off the rails in the latter two thirds of the film when the narrative unravels as the traditional reins upon Katherine aren't simply loosened, they disappear completely. The film rapidly deteriorates from there when all of the tension and drama those constraints brought with them dissipates entirely. The art house ship is scuttled at that point and a rather predictable and conventional film takes its place.
The one bright spot in the whole endeavor is the discovery of Florence Pugh. Pugh, who is vaguely reminiscent of a young Kate Winslet, has stardom written all over her. She is a beautiful woman, but her beauty never overshadows her talent. She is blessed with the skill of being able to convey her character's intentions and vivid inner life with the slightest of glances. Pugh is a charismatic and powerful screen presence who exudes an intelligence and strength that few young actresses possess. I am willing to bet that she has a most stellar career in front of her.
The rest of the cast are all eclipsed by the supernova that is Ms. Pugh. Cosmo Jarvis plays the love interest but is entirely of no interest. Naomi Ackie is given a rather thankless job of having to portray a character that is so poorly written it is difficult to reconcile. And Paul Hilton's Alexander is so terribly one-dimensional he might as well be twirling his mustache whenever he's on screen.
I was ready to go all in on the ride of Lady MacBeth, but the film made the fatal error of not grounding it's story in a consistent reality, and thus the entire exercise seemed a rather empty and fruitless endeavor that became harder and harder to buy into. I was very disappointed with the film, but on the bright side found solace in Ms. Pugh's sublime performance despite it all.
My recommendation is to skip Lady MacBeth entirely. Even watching it for free on Netflix or cable would be a waste of time as the film neither reveals nor illuminates anything of worth or substance. It's a shame, for if the filmmaker had screwed their courage to the sticking place, maybe the film could have been elevated to the art house throne. Instead, Lady MacBeth took the easy and cowardly route of the ordinary and won its hard earned exile from artistic relevancy.