DVD Review: Lady Macbeth

By , Contributor
Director William Oldroyd and screenwriter Alice Birch have crafted something disturbing, haunting, and memorable with Lady Macbeth, a critic's darling that failed to ignite with art house viewers during a limited 2017 theatrical run. In adapting the 1865 novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, Oldroyd and Birch have come up with a vicious look at amorality and the corrupting properties of power. It's a tough movie to like per se, but thanks to a commanding performance by relative newcomer Florence Pugh it's also tough to take your eyes off it.

Way out in a bleak English countryside, Katherine (Pugh) has been sold by her father into marriage with Alexander Lester (Paul Hilton). She lives in a large house with numerous servants, chief among them Anna (Naomi Ackie), and her husband's disciplinarian father Boris (Christopher Fairbank). Katherine isn't allowed to so much as venture outdoors. Alexander and Boris would prefer she not even exhibit a personality, let alone any sense of independence. Perhaps most frustrating for the supremely nubile Katherine, her middle-aged husband appears to be suffering from some degree of erectile dysfunction. Some nights he manages to please himself while she stands naked, her back to him—but those are the good nights. Otherwise he simply goes to sleep.
Lady Macbeth DVD.jpg Katherine first tastes liberating power after Alexander and Boris leave for an extended business trip of an undisclosed nature. At first the ability to wander around in the fresh air seems enough to enliven Katherine's senses. Before long a torrid affair sparks between she and Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), one of the Lester property's laborers. What follows is, at first, predictable. Servant Anna is wise to Katherine's dalliance. She's also understandably envious of Katherine's privileges in face of her own oppression. Once Anna talks, a domino effect begins as Katherine begins dealing with the obstacles that arise to block her newfound hedonistic freedom.

Lady Macbeth boasts a simple narrative and compact running time (90 minutes). It presents Katherine initially as a quasi-feminist taking a stand in a horribly oppressive environment, but eventually becomes more about her loss of moral compass. That is, if she had one to begin with. Young and presumably inexperienced, Katherine devolves into something of a monster as she discovers the ability to do pretty much anything she desires. Director Oldroyd plays with our expectations, setting us up to sympathize with Katherine before pulling the rug out from under us. Her decisions increasingly ostracize any right-minded viewer (the punishments she doles out hardly fit the crimes, or perceived crimes—such that they are), leaving a strange feeling of non-resolution. But it's never less than compelling to watch as Florence Pugh stakes out a claim as an actress to watch.

Lionsgate has released Lady Macbeth on DVD and Digital HD only (no Blu-ray). DVD features include a short "making of" featurette in which the filmmakers curiously seem to believe they're making a film about an admirable heroine. The stark, muted beauty of Ari Wegner's cinematography would've most certainly benefited from the increased resolution of 1080p Blu-ray.

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Chaz Lipp is a Seattle-based freelance writer whose focus is film and music. His new jazz album Good Merlin is now available.

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