There aren’t very many words spoken in William Oldroyd’s “Lady Macbeth” — most of the communication is done through sex, abuse, and murder — but not a one of them is wasted or forgotten. Indeed, the film’s emblematically terse first exchange looms over the 85 minutes that follow like a dark shadow on a bitter day, and it’s proof that Florence Pugh deserves more attention in this year’s competitive awards season.
It’s Katherine’s (Pugh) wedding night, and the 17-year-old bride is being dressed for her deflowering. Her new husband’s chambermaid does the honors, Anna (Naomi Ackie), slipping the girl into her nightgown. “Are you cold?” Anna asks, a valid question on a brutal winter night in the North of England circa 1865. “No,” Katherine responds. “Nervous?” “No.” She looks into Anna’s eyes, either searching the servant’s face to see if she has reason to be nervous, or trying to indicate that it’s her husband who should be nervous of her. Later that night, Katherine is alone with her groom (Paul Hilton) for the first time. “You’re not too cold?” Alexander wonders insincerely from the far side of the room. “I’m thick-skinned,” she replies.
That might just be the understatement of the century. Katherine wears her pink skin like an impenetrable suit of armor, which might explain why Alexander — after ordering his wife to strip naked — immediately crawls into bed and goes to sleep after seeing her uncovered body.
But nothing seems to faze Katherine, in much the same way that great white sharks don’t get scared; she’s a beautiful stranger with rosy cheeks that hide teeth behind teeth behind teeth, her face often masked with the bored look of a wild creature in captivity. The character is sympathetic at the start of the movie and sociopathic by the end, but the genius of Pugh’s performance is that she never changes a thing.
It’s often said that films orbit around certain people, but “Lady Macbeth” is the rare film that actually justifies the expression; Katherine stays rooted in place as we pivot from one perspective to another. She isn’t a victim who becomes a monster, or a prisoner who becomes a master; she’s a woman who’s been conditioned to believe that abuse is the only true expression of power, and she’s determined to survive her sex.
In a year that has been defined by systemic (and predominately misogynistic) perversions of power, “Lady Macbeth” is an urgently merciless cautionary tale. And in an awards race that has focused its attention on female characters who find their strength (whether through asserting themselves, forgiving someone else, or having sex with a fish man), Pugh’s indelible portrayal hinges on corrupting it.
Of course, it’s not much of a surprise that a spartan, frigid little English movie based on a 19th century Russian novel hasn’t been able to compete with the likes of “Lady Bird” and “The Post.”
Only 19 when the film was shot, Pugh delivers a stony performance that seems perfectly calibrated to scare off the Academy — it’s almost as if Oldroyd showed the actress Meryl Streep’s highlight reel and then asked her to do just do the opposite. To retreat inwards rather than open herself up, to get smaller with every action, to grow more inscrutable as she becomes more aggressive. The part calls for an actress who’s comfortable with the fact that audiences will like her a lot less at the end than they do at the start, and Pugh never flinches.
That hardness, however, only becomes apparent over time. Katherine begins the film as a blank slate, and Pugh makes sure that the character is initially soft enough to support. She smiles when people talk to her, and she toughs it out when Anna brushes her hair like she’s stamping out a fire. She downs a glass of wine while she’s been straightjacketed into her signature blue dress, and she rather indignantly saves Anna from being harassed — maybe even raped — by the boorish groomsman who work in the barn. In short, Katherine seems like a far cry from the Shakespearian schemer who lends this film its title; she errs closer to a house cat, bored and timeless.
She’s the only person in the movie who seems to stand outside the period’s archaic social strictures, and her modernity wins our allegiance. The longer Alexander refuses to touch his wife, the more that Pugh plays Katherine like an actress who’s uncertain of her role, and understandably pissed at her lack of direction. She scoffs at her orders, snickers at her husband, and makes deadly use of her restlessness. It’s hard to remember the last time the female lead of a costume drama had so little interest in subscribing to the bullshit of her circumstances. Madame Bovary was never this down to earth.
Even (or especially) when Katherine starts killing people, we’re still on her side. To some degree, that’s because there’s a righteous bent to the early stages of her liberation, before she’s realized just how slippery a slope she’s started to walk down. Nobody is going to lose any sleep over the death of Katherine’s demonic father-in-law (Christopher Fairbank), especially if his absence makes life easier for the black housemaid he treated like an animal. But if Katherine is a feminist (and that’s a bigger if than you might think), we soon come to learn that she isn’t exactly an intersectional one.
She’s been treated as an object for her entire life, so caring about other human beings isn’t necessarily something that comes naturally to her, a fact which only becomes clearer after she embarks on a torrid affair with the same groomsman (Cosmo Jarvis) who recently assaulted Anna. Katherine is enamored with him, turned on by the rebellious aggression with which he forces his way into her room on the night of their first tryst. That swagger, however, is a thin facade, and the groomsman thaws as Katherine starts killing anyone who might keep them apart; if he’s hiding a conscience, she’s merely projecting one.
It’s fascinating to watch because Pugh never grows so much as a single degree warmer than she was during the opening scene; even when Katherine is smothering her man with kisses and trying to soothe his guilt, Pugh delivers every moment through a chilly veil of dispassion. Her kindness feels increasingly like a put-on, and even the most extreme emotions never seem far from her resting state of predatory blankness (Pugh’s crocodile tears alone merit serious Oscar consideration). The actress stubbornly refuses to accommodate our shifting sympathies, the mounting dread that Katherine’s ends won’t be able justify her means — she never gives an inch. As Pugh has confirmed in interviews, the only way for her to deliver a performance this committed was to believe that Katherine was in the right, that the most damning thing about her predicament is that she can’t even kill her way out of it.
It’s to Oldroyd’s credit, and to that of screenwriter Alice Birch, that the film lets us sit with that. Kathrine earns empathy because of her plight and then exhausts it through her actions, but Pugh is able to keep playing her like a hero because the movie is so unambiguous about recasting her as a villain, or at least as villain-ish. Neither side flinches, even when Katherine selfishly exploits every tool at her disposal — race, class, gender, etc. — to protect herself. Pugh commits to the character even after “Lady Macbeth” betrays her, allowing a story about strength to deliciously sour into a story about trauma. Hurt people hurt people, as the saying goes.
“What’s done is done,” said Lady Macbeth. Empowerment is virtuous, but never easy, and abuse only flows downstream. In a year overflowing with strong performances, none required more strength than Pugh’s attempt to swim against the current.