I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to really talk about Lady Macbeth.
Now, Florence Pugh has put in so many good performances over the course of her career, and the thought of what she’ll gone on to do is even more exciting – since her breakthrough in 2016, she’s delivered on everything from Amy March to Midsommar. This woman has The Range, capital T, capital R, and I will hear no different. But for me, to this day, Lady Macbeth is her most extraordinary and challenging role, and I’d like to talk about it a little today.
William Oldroyd’s 2016 adaptation of Nikolai Leskov’s novella rightly got a whole lot of buzz when it came out: a pitch-black historical drama starring then-newcomer Florence Pugh as Katherine, a young woman in a loveless marriage to an older landowning man who begins an affair with one of his staff members (Cosmo Jarvis, who went on to have his own exceptional breakthrough in the form of the excellent Calm With Horses). Spoilers ahead for the movie, which I do thoroughly recommend watching if you haven’t seen it yet.
Katherine is a fascinating blend of victim and villain; she’s a woman oppressed by the social mores and actual laws of the time she’s born into, and also wise to the privilege her status as the white spouse of a rich man gives her, and how she can use it to protect herself from the consequences of her actions. The way Pugh and screenwriter Alice Birch explore this dichotomy is genuinely brilliant, shying away from neither her oppression or the way she hurts others around her. As she rips apart the fabric of the estate she married into, she represents an inversion of the female ideal of the time – pious, motherly, faithful – in many of the same ways that the title character does in her respective play. It’s not a cheerful representation of female empowerment – no, it’s a twisted, violent, sexually-charged revenge against the
She’s impassably unreadable and painfully emotional in turns – manipulative, monstrous, and tragic all at once. The way Pugh captures this, vacillating between incredible poise and total lack of control, is compelling in a way very few performances can ever dream of being. What she does with so little, conveying the curdled cruelty in this character, still stands out to me above her other work, even though she’s downright brilliant in pretty much every single other movie too. The repression Katherine lives under doesn’t give Pugh a huge amount of space for emotional exposition, but there isn’t a moment on-screen where her intentions aren’t clear. There’s a precision here, a confidence and sureness in her talent and skill, that’s impossible to deny. It’s this turn, I’m sure, that laid the groundwork for so much of the rest of her career – her ability to turn unlikeable characters into completely watchable and vital people.
There’s a whole lot more to recommend to Lady Macbeth – the gorgeous cinematography, excellent supporting performances from Naomi Ackie and Cosmo Jarvis, to name a few – but, really, come to this for Florence Pugh, and you’re not going to be disappointed.
By Lou MacGregor
(header image via Collider)