Lady Macbeth (William Oldroyd, UK, 2016)

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I went to see Lady Macbeth  for Cosmo Jarvis – I became a fan through his Gay Pirate song — who is very handsome in it but not good, rather like the film. Great material though – based on Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 Russian novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk, rendered even more interesting by adding a racial dimension to the casting. I know it’s been highly praised as an examination of patriarchy. The lady in question is bought in marriage, along with a piece of land, and treated like a piece of property. Then slowly, she revolts, she takes on a half-cast lover, a groom working on the estate – begins to murder for him, and in the end is capable of anything. She starts off as a piece of property who’s humanity is in every way denied or diminished; is brought to life by passion only to be once more de-humanised by the murder necessary to keep the passion going. Her desire frees her only to re-enslave her in a different form. There are a lot of black actors in the cast, and it’s clear that the casting is meant to make one think of people as property, of slavery, to somehow add this to discussions of class and gender. But the film doesn’t do what films are supposed to do which is create a pattern around this, try to make sense of them somehow in order to convey feeling and meaning. Perhaps a better way of saying this is one knows what the film is trying to get at, but the film is not quite getting to it in a way that is decipherable, intellectually or emotionally — at least to me. There’s a lot of silence, and a lot of murders take place out of sight or out of camera range. It’s a dispassionate film. I wanted to feel something at the beatings or the murders and the sex rather than just knowing about them, having them blandly half-shown. I was trying to figure out why the camera was wherever it was at any given point and the only reason I could come up with was that they were short of money – thus all the tableau-y medium long shots and lack of variety in camera set-ups. I also thought the moment – and this is just one of many examples — where the master asks the black servant to get on her knees and crawl ‘like the animal she is’ — I thought that might have been a magnificent moment on stage but the film just opened up all kinds of possibilities as to what a more imaginative director could have done with that moment onscreen that merely demonstrated the gap between what the film is and what it could have been. I don’t think this director, William Oldroyd, whose first film this is, knows much about directing movies. On the other hand Ari Wegner has done a beautiful job of cinematography, it’s all lush haze, densely forested exteriors in half-light outside, clearly coloured, almost varnished emptiness inside. It looks beautiful. And there is, I don’t know if it’s a performance exactly, but the magnificent surly presence of Florence Pugh, which brings an anger and resistance to the character and renders the film dramatic, adding the only excitement this lifeless film seems capable of.

I found the experience of watching Lady Macbeth dull. Yet images, those very tableaus I didn’t at first like — the lady dressing, and dressing and dressing again; being constricted by form, habit, propriety only to be removed of her clothes to await her master’s pleasure — and the contained anger in Lady Macbeth’s surly face: all of this has lingered in my mind almost a week after seeing the film.

José Arroyo

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