Wednesday, July 5, 2017


Those who came out of the film Lady Macbeth (William Oldroyd, 2016) believing that the female protagonist Katherine (Florence Pugh) was the only guilty party in this Gothic tale should be reminded of one of the opening scenes in which her cold and detached husband, twice her age, commands her to remove her nightdress and stand facing the wall as he remains dressed sitting in a chair. He proceeds to masturbate whilst viewing her naked buttocks and when she turns towards him after hearing his altered breathing, he demands she look away. It is obvious from this scene that he has the power to command, that his desire has primacy and that she must submit her will. Paradoxically it is not her vulnerability but his that we note, for he appears unable to touch or approach her and doesn't wish to be seen whilst engaged in pleasure. In an early scene Katherine excuses herself through tiredness from an all male dinner gathering and her father in law instructs the maid to ensure Katherine remains awake to receive her husband at the end of the evening. It is obvious that she is to be always ready and able to comply to his sexual needs.
Although compliant in the household Katherine is reminded that her husband, a rich minor's son, purchased her along with some land and as such IS his possession. The fact that she wears clothes made of luxurious fabrics, has a maid and lives in a lesurely manner is evidence of her husband's wealth, power and status, however, we are alerted to her lack of status and that of her dark skinned, mixed race maid Anna (Naomi Ackie), who brushes Katherine's hair, laces her corset way too tightly, and watches her every move, by the fact that both have subserviant roles to play in this household. Race in this context underscores the obvious class differences. Indeed Anna is considered less than human and in a very telling scene is straddled and hung in cloth in an outhouse on the husband's estate. The male servants who have stripped her naked and strung her up, refer to her as a pig. When Katherine happens upon the scene, she demands that they release Anna and adopting the master's voice (in his absence), mirrors his words to her in the bedroom by telling the young men to 'turn around, face the wall and stop smiling'. In a later scene Katherine's father in law who believes Anna is responsible for wine that's gone missing (it was actually consumed by Katherine whilst he was away), demands that she walk on her hands and knees as she leaves the room because she has behaved irresponsibly, lied and behaved like an animal.
The film takes a somewhat positive turn for Katherine when her husband is called away on business and being free for the first time to venture outdoors instead of being confined to the large, empty home, where she does nothing but sleep and look out the window, she takes Sebastian, a stable hand as her lover. It is the first instance in which female desire is expressed and Katherine is insatiable, since she's had no love, attention or sexual relations with her husband that wasn't solely about his desire.
Suspicion befalls Katherine when her father-in-law who reminds her that she has not fulfilled her wifely duties of producing an heir, dies of mushroom poisoning, even though the stable hand sees Anna picking wild mushrooms in the forest. In a short exchange she advises him that the master will not be happy if he discovers Sebastian has been having sex with Katherine. Later, when the master returns and declares his knowledge of Katherine's infidelity she blatantly drags Sebastian out of an adjoing room and begins to caress him in front of her husband who attacks Sebastian causing Katherine to use a fireplace iron and furously beat him he lies dead in a bloody mess. Two facts are obvious here, firstly she attacks her husband in defence of Sebastian and secondly her desire to hold onto her agency occasions her to takes advantage of the opportunistic event of her husband's early return. Both Katherine and Sebastian dispose of his corpse and Katherine shoots her husband's horse to conceal evidence that he has returned to the estate.
Katherine's life is complicated by her pregnancy and the arrival of her deceased husband's ward Teddy. Although she bonds with the young child he absconds from the estate and is located on a cliff edge by Sebastian who carries him home. He confesses to Katherine that he considered killing the child, presumably because the child was not his, would most likely have a financial claim on the estate and would be taking much of Katherine's attention away from him.
Whilst the near death child was lying on the couch, Katherine, obviously intimidated by Sebastian's desire to rid them of a child that was not his, smothers the child whilst Sebastian holds him down. Unable to contain his remorse Sebastian confesses to the doctor that it was he and Katherine who murdered Teddy, however Katherine denies this and accuses Anna and Sebastian as the culprits who murdered the child, her husband and her father-in-law. The pair are hand-cuffed, arrested and carried off to their ultimate fate.
We may read this culmination to the film as underscoring the view that mixed raced individuals are less than human and more likely to commit atrocities, or we could view this as an indictment of an upper class white individual whose very status affords her credibility over inferior subjects. On the other hand we may consider Katherine's actions as a woman very much in survival mode, looking after her own interests and that of her unborn child.
At the end of the film Katherine sits quietly alone in her blue satin dress on a chaise longue staring out at the audience who no doubt perceive her as monstrous. However, her defiant pose challenges our perceptions about her actions and the circumstances surrounding them, which makes me recall that singular image of Emily Dickinson (Cynthia Nixon) in A Quiet Passion (Terence Davies) sitting in her deep blue dress in quiet contemplation considering her lonliness and unrequited love of a married man and Rachel in My Cousin Rachel, who is suspected of murdering her cousin's guardian. All three women are represented in these films as aberrant female entities of the 19th Century.

1 comment:

  1. I had decided not to see Lady Macbeth, I got a lot out of reading your review. I stopped at last few lines as I do want to see A Quiet Passion ( not saying you did spoiler- but just in case) I am going to see it at Elsternwick this week.