It’s a brave venture of both book and film to incorporate “Macbeth” into their titles, but Lady Macbeth is a bewildering piece that defies the risk of its name; an arguable dare to the viewer to respond “it’s hardly Shakespeare”. Lady Macbeth is a stark retelling of the tale of the arranged-marriage gone-wrong, charting Catherine’s (Florence Pugh) topsy-turvy reprisal of power from your standard-issue, horrid-forced-husband Alexander (Paul Hilton). Think The Duchess with teeth.
“a stark retelling”
And it’s really wonderful, as many have noted. Pugh for instance masters that elusive quality of Mrs Leicester, somehow managing to oscillate seamlessly between transparency and opacity. However, it must also be said that there is a certain shameful kick to be gotten out of the sheer materialism of the whole thing- all the stuff. A bit like wandering around The White Stuff or certain sections of John Lewis for 89 minutes, it’s the sort of thing that has you thinking beyond-your-years, woefully middle class thoughts like “what lovely natural fibres”. In particular, there was an especially magnificent night robe (heavy silk in a sensuous terracotta-peach) which unfortunately featured in a handful of rather crucial scenes. It had me tuning out every time; you think, yes, this is all awful, but that truly is a very nice dressing gown. But it is worth noting that this super-focus on the textures of objects does seem to be a key tool to relatively recent revitalizations of the period drama or, more flatteringly, dramas with period settings (think Robert Eggers’ The VVItch or Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights). All that nice wool and cotton filmed in HD is lovely, but also does seem to create a kind of relatable physicality that helps us to reconnect with the material, literally and literarily. We are able to think to ourselves; I know what that feels like. That, however, does not mean that it doesn’t cause distraction. Mr Leicester is an odious man but he also does have a really great taste in bespoke wooden bedframes.
“a shape-shifting nightmare”
On a darker note, Lady Macbeth also managed to conjure up those really peculiar superstitions towards the outdoors, that collective fear seeming initially, as ludicrous to us as it does Catherine. It appears to exist even separately from the collaborative project to quarantine Alexander’s infectiously vivacious wife. However, somewhere along the line, I found myself beginning to get drawn into those superstitions. This seems especially true when our sympathies towards Catherine, who seems to feed on the outdoors, become more and more confused. That headiness you feel from being outside for a really long time get reimagined as part of larger literal hedonism. That intoxication from lots of fresh air again becomes part of a broader literal intoxication (incidentally Catherine’s lugubrious, red-current plucking, wine-glugging, boho-rebellion is a deeply satisfying process to savour). Allusions to Macbeth considered, those disorientating qualities attributed to the outdoors, real and/or imagined, seem to fill in for that all important witchy influence in the primary text. Perhaps some of these themes get vocalized a little too loudly towards the end. Some of the lines in the final scene might be forgiven for being misheard as “This, everyone, is the subtext”.
It is a shape-shifting nightmare of a piece that, without warning, completely turns on you and cruelly toys with your perceptions. Even after two viewings I’m still not entirely certain of what really happened. You won’t know whether to believe your eyes.