If you should wander, like me, totally unprepared into a screening of Lady Macbeth (William Oldroyd, 2017) it might take a while before you realize that you are watching a film about a woman, Katherine, who is, for all intents and purposes, quite mad. The plot details of the 1865 source novel, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk by Russian author Nikolai Leskov, were unknown to me, and apart from the title which should’ve alerted me that things could turn out murderous, I was taken aback by the narrative, which unfolded slowly and eerily like Norman Bates’ smile at the end of Hitchcock’s Psycho. It is not that what happens is so completely new and unexpected -lovers have plotted to kill inconvenient spouses for centuries – it is the straight narration, the controlled performance of the lead actress (Florence Pugh) and the patient registration of some of the film’s shocking violence in controlled, painterly tableaux that unnerved and surprised me. Combined with the fact that the film is ostensibly a period picture (or costume drama), a genre which usually seduces with breathtaking vistas of unspoiled country landscapes, richly textured dresses, and a harmless marriage plot, there was little reason to suspect the depths of Katherine’s diabolical madness. That vague sense of nostalgia that usually feeds the genre is absent here, instead dread takes over.
Director William Oldroyd, a stage director who makes his feature debut here, has stated in Sight and Sound (May 2017) that Vilhelm HammershøiHammershøi also was an inspiration for Terence Davies’ A Quiet Passion, as noted in our interview with the director. A Quiet Passion would make for a fine companion piece to Lady Macbeth. was a direct pictorial inspiration for the set design and the mood and style of his compositions. (Tight framing, spare furniture, cold color schemes, figures of women in contemplation at a desk, in front of a window framed in a door…) Painterly references aside, Lady Macbeth, like other more or less recent adaptations of nineteenth century novels such as Michael Winterbottom’s Jude (1996), Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights (2011) or, to a lesser degree, Cary Joji Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre (2011), embraces an aesthetic of explicitness that does not shy away from dirt, ugliness, blood and real-life (animal) suffering. This explicitness goes hand in hand with an interest in what one could call a “new authenticity” or at least the effect of authenticity. The authentic artwork presents itself as faithful not only to the filmmaker’s artistic integrity but also to a modern sense of what could be a “real,” unabashed, and complete representation of the past. This “new authentic” (somewhat of a style or convention like any another) is favored over generic clichés often obfuscating the “real” and the usual artificiality, anachronisms and luster of Hollywood adaptations. These aesthetically explicit films want to show what classical period movies (and their source novels) would typically hide, imply or gloss over: animals are tortured and killed; children are beaten; sex is shown to be a disappointing and uncomfortable affair (or its reverse: sex is passionate and exciting in ways that could never be written about in canonical fiction let alone shown in Production Code era adaptations); there are flies in the kitchen and rats in the attic; the country is muddy, foggy and cold; houses are creaky and drafty; people are racist, unjust and cruel (and they don’t all look like Michael Fassbender), and class is a major dividing force. Also made explicit in these recent adaptations is the fact that Heathcliff could be black (as he is in Andrea Arnold’s adaptation of Wuthering Heights) and that Lady Macbeth’s lover and servant are black too.
What I expected to see, and surely was encouraged to presume at the beginning of the film, was something of a feminist tale: a story of female suffering and eventually, hopefully, of female triumph, however unlikely. When Katherine begins to show signs of rebellion against the silly demands of the men in her life, i.e. her weak, embittered husband who has brought her into a cold, condescending and sexless marriage and her domineering, misogynist father-in-law, her small triumphs were greeted with pleasure. Katherine, we learn, was bought, along with a piece of land, and her sole purpose is to ensure a male heir for the estate. Her husband is unable or unwilling to perform the necessary actions and Katherine is blamed for failing to perform her duties. Her life is deliberately made bleak, boring, and bitter: locked up in a cold house, with no books, no piano, no companionship but the maids, who, because of class and race boundaries cannot become her allies. Her black maid, Anna, who seems capable enough of empathy, does not understand her new mistress and becomes increasingly alienated by her behavior, while Katherine does not like nor understand Anna either. The director has compared Katherine and Anna’s relationship to that of prisoner and warden (S&S): Anna locks up her mistress at night, keeps an eye on her, wakes her in the morning, dresses her (in tight-fitting corsets) and is clearly expected to tell on her should she do something that is not allowed. She is thus given a power over her mistress she does not truly possess, but which is bestowed on her by the men who, through her, dominate and humiliate Katherine. This power imbalance sours any chance of confidentiality or trust between the two women. There is no sisterhood and they betray one another at different times, though Anna’s position as a servant, non-white and a woman puts her at a considerable disadvantage. As a logical consequence of this, the film skips the final chapters of the Russian source novel and instead stages the apparent victory of the empowered over the powerless. Katherine may be powerless as a woman, but as white upper class she is eventually more powerful than those socially and racially ‘beneath’ her.
So Katherine’s small feminist triumphs are, at first, innocent enough: she defies the dull routines of the household by sleepwalking or daydreaming her way through the day. She irks and annoys her father-in-law intensely and while she does not openly defy him she does talk back at him. She is repeatedly ordered not to leave the house, but she sneaks out to get some fresh air anyway. As she roams around the stark but beautiful landscape of Northern England, her hair loose, her spirits high, a subtle smile reveals her intense pleasure. This is obviously more than just fresh air, this is freedom and she can taste it, smell it, feel it take possession of her body. Afterwards, Anna diligently scrubs Katherine’s skin clean of its hunger for air (and for a human touch.)
But of course, the plot thickens. During her husband and father-in-law’s absence, Katherine becomes entangled in a Lawrencian passionate love affair with Sebastian, the new and rather rough around the edges but quite alluring stable boy. He awakens and satisfies Catherine’s sexual desires. The display of so much female sexual pleasure – Catherine is enjoying her own body, and is clearly in charge when she and Sebastian make love, quiet at first, then louder and louder – seems another happy triumph. From then on, as she grows determined to safeguard her desires and liberties, the actions of this sexually awakened woman become increasingly unstable and unsettling. To say she is ‘mad’ is perhaps too easy, but it is also an explanation that somehow fits: she was driven to madness, for sure – like so many women in attics before her. (In criticism I have seen her compared to Emma Bovary, Lady Chatterley, and Eline Vere, but she is also a Bertha Rochester.)
What makes us perhaps frown is that Katherine’s madness, which it must be for her murderous actions cannot be simply traced back to her passionate desire for Sebastian (as her final self-serving lie should prove), is not spelled out or revealed by twitchy acting, headaches, puzzled looks or stares, talking to herself, screaming, nightmares, sleepwalking or generally odd behavior. This is what one would have gotten in classical Hollywood films. I have a fondness for 1940s melodramas, particularly for those movies in which the female protagonist turns out to be ‘mentally challenged’ (which can mean: traumatized, neurotic, hysterical, crazy, hypnotized, psychotic…) and in these films the signs are usually articulated quite clearly: In Possessed (1947) Joan Crawford is sweating profusely half of the time, shaking all over and grabbing her head in frequent despair and confusion (and there’s this intense stare of hers); in The Snake Pit (1948) Olivia de Havilland stops washing her hair and leaves the house unattended (surely a sign of a mad woman!), Gene Tierney (who is not unlike our Lady Macbeth here in her attitude towards children) adopts a cold, stone-like face and is seen zombie-walking much of her way through Leave her to Heaven (1945) and like Katherine these women are responsible for killing (or trying to kill) at least one man who crosses their path. So generally, the performances in forties films explicitly foreground the heroine’s mental instability. The actress is allowed some leeway to try out what could be considered, strictly speaking, “overacting,” “hamming it up,” or “overdoing it.” No such accusation can be made when we look at Florence Pugh’s performance in Lady Macbeth. Not unlike a 1940s glamour performance the camera favors her and her face, but Pugh keeps the turmoil, anger, fear and ultimate insanity hidden beneath the surface. There is no shaking, no twitching, no head clutching. There are some cracks in the surface of her fascinating face but they are subtle. (Actually I believe Pugh’s performance is precisely built on hiding these signs of mental instability – she plays a woman who is acting all the time, hiding her madness.)
The psychodramas of the forties were further characterized by an unstable narrative pattern that in a sense ‘mimicked’ the mental instability of its heroines: there were several flashbacks (in flashbacks) which gave us access to the heroine’s (unreliable) memories; there was usually a narrative frame to remind us we were watching a version of the truth as experienced by an unstable narrator and indeed whole scenes could turn out to be mere illusions (for example the murder fantasy in Possessed); ‘actual events’ and their meanings were hidden underneath layers of Freudian imagery and could only be understood – made causally and psychologically sensible and therefore fit for classical narrative paradigms – when a (male) psychiatrist or therapist explained them to the heroine (see for example the big explanation scene – Poirot style – in The Snake Pit). Diane Waldman has connected “the female gothic melodrama,” something of a sub or parallel genre of these psychodrama’s, in which an anguished heroine fears that her husband may want to kill her, to post-war circumstances when women realized that the man they had married just before or during the war were in fact strangers to them. (Men in turn feared the fearlessness and ambition of the women who had been asked to take their places during the war and who were not planning to go back to domesticity – film noir’s femme fatale is often linked to this social unrest and anxiety.) Waldman notes that the central feature of these Gothics was ambiguity, an uncertainty about two possible interpretations available to the heroine as well as to the spectator. (Is our heroine imagining things, or not? Is she, in fact, mad or not?) Film historian Jeanine Basinger once quipped in her book on women’s films (A Woman’s View) that all female-centered films – where the actions and problems stem from the heroine’s gender in one way or another and which include psychodramas and Gothics – are characterized by a certain “appealing madness” in their plotting and that they share a “lunacy” that infects the narrative coherence of the story.
Again, there is none of that in Lady Macbeth: the story is presented chronologically, there are no flashbacks, no odd point of view sequences, there is no ambiguity or hesitation in how to interpret events (either for the heroine or for us spectators), no unreliable bouts of fragmented or subjective narration. In fact, the narration is neutral, observing and trustworthy, with the possible exception of a somewhat ambiguous open ending. Lady Macbeth makes explicit a ‘reality’ that matches our sense of what life in the nineteenth century may have been like, but it refuses to present madness as a series of recognizable and repeated symptoms that we have come to know from films and other popular depictions of madness or insanity. Katherine’s madness remains implicit but it can be explained by everything we see: the mind-numbing routines of life, the repression of the self, the universal despair of the lower classes and the powerless, and by the cruelty of desire.