History & Film | A Still & Quiet Horror: Lady Macbeth

Florence Pugh as Katherine Leicester

As I write this, it’s nearing Halloween, so my first thought was to pick something rather monstrous – perhaps the various incarnations of Dracula on film, or even Sean Bean’s turn in that odd mashup, The Frankenstein Chronicles. But then I had a thought: why not something that’s horrific in a novel way? Thus, I give you Lady Macbeth.

Before you make an understandable mistake – assuming this is in some way adapted from or related to Shakespeare – allow me to disabuse you. The storyline originates with an 1865 novella, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, by Russian author Nikolai Leskov, which was first published in Epoch magazine, demesne of that feel-good cheer factory, Fyodor Dostoyevsky. The original novella was so far removed from anything Shakespearean that it’s difficult to justify the title, and this film adaptation heads even further afield. It’s 1865 in Northampton, England. Katherine (Florence Pugh) is a teenaged bride, wed to wealthy, middle-aged Alexander Leicester (read: purchased by Leicester’s overbearing father, Boris, along with a tract of land). When Alexander (Paul Hilton) leaves to tend to an explosion at one of the family’s collieries and Boris (Christopher Fairbank) heads off to London, Katherine begins a torrid affair with one of the workers on her husband’s estate, Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis). So far, so Lady Chatterley.

This film fits squarely within the costume noir genre, however, not the racy flock flick. Its stylistic elements are arresting and minutely structured. Katherine is confined, in every sense of the word, from being forbidden to enjoy the outdoors to the stays of her corset and the cage of her crinoline. She is advised of the virtues of “solitude and reflection.” She often engages in that trope of the trapped female: gazing out a window. One critic noted the “coldly rustic, half-finished puritanism”1 of the interiors; they are expensive, solid, but Spartan. Color is used sparingly: there is a mustard-hued sofa upon which Katherine often sits, prim, stylized and motionless, staring straight ahead, the vibrant blue of her dress and her pale face “like a doll that no one plays with.”2 Katherine is never shown doing anything; she doesn’t read, she doesn’t sew. She doesn’t even attend to the duties of running a household. She simply sits, staring. All of these shots are framed with a fearful symmetry. When Katherine interacts with her husband or father-in-law, there is always something between to separate them – a bed, a table, a chair – physical manifestations of intangible barriers. Clocks tick, Katherine tries desperately not to nod off. The camera lingers to drive home what is going on here: Katherine is isolated, restless, and increasingly bored. Teenagers get into trouble when they’re bored.

This is how Katherine’s relationship with the unkempt, womanizing Sebastian feels: the kind of reckless abandon in which teenagers often engage, heedless of consequence. As soon as her husband and father-in-law depart, she’s on the sofa again, but now sprawled asleep, barefoot; she heads outdoors into the howling wind, hair unbound. She takes no care to hide her affair from the servants, including her maid, Anna (Naomi Ackie), who she knows has been tasked with watching her by the men of the house. When her father-in-law returns, Katherine is immediately laced back into her corset, the slight breath of freedom curtailed. Referred to by the uncouth, abusive Boris as property, Katherine’s rebellion surfaces, setting her up as a stereotypical feminist heroine – her jaw-dropping actions in sticking it to the man are to be viewed sympathetically from, as one reviewer assumed every viewer would possess, “our modern, liberal perspective.”3 But this is where things get confusing.

I’m debating on how much I can reveal without spoilers. We could start with Katherine’s first meeting Sebastian. Hearing a commotion, Katherine stumbles on a scene initially bewildering to the viewer and then, as understanding dawns, disgusting. There is riotous laughter as several estate workers poke and prod at something hanging from the ceiling – it turns out to be Anna, naked. They have put her in the sling used to weigh livestock. When Katherine furiously demands to know what’s going on, Sebastian smirks, “Weighing a sow.” Just as she has been ordered by her own husband during intimate (for lack of a better word, since there is no intimacy here) moments, Katherine demands of the workers that they “Face the wall. And stop smiling.” As Anna, crying, gathers her clothes and runs away, Katherine could be viewed as her protector, gender solidarity shown to a fellow beleaguered woman. But instead, she is only angry that the estate workers waste her husband’s time, and suggestively asks Sebastian, who eyes her slantwise, “How much would I weigh?” He responds by picking her up, they tussle and he ends up on the floor, Katherine inflamed with anger…and something else. The entire incident, the humiliation and possible sexual assault of her maid, is only used as a foil for a twisted meet cute. There is no inquiry, no kindness, no solace directed at Anna. When the still sniffling maid later attempts to speak to her mistress about the incident, Katherine cuts her off – “The one who called you a pig, what was his name?” – absorbed only in her new, inexplicable love interest.

I said this is confusing, and it only becomes more so with the addition of a layer completely absent from the original storyline: race. Anna (who doesn’t exist in the novella) is black, Sebastian is made to appear biracial (in actuality, the actor is of Armenian descent), and Anna’s husband has also had a liaison that produces a mixed-race child, who enters late in the story with his black grandmother. None of this is addressed explicitly, but as one reviewer noted, the movie’s racial undertones are “thunderous.”4 The characterization is somewhat out of place for the time period and location (especially the story’s original, Russia, but also this film’s isolated estate in Victorian northern England). Katherine is abused; she is denigrated and mistreated. But to be an acceptable #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter heroine, sympathy must exist with the even more oppressed Anna: if Katherine is sticking it to the (rich, white, privileged) man, hers must be a victory on behalf of all those marginalized. Yet Katherine is an extremely problematic social justice warrior. As is quickly evident, Katherine experiences sympathy with no one, even the individual she purports to obsessively love. Everyone with any power here abuses it: Boris torments all, including his son, Alexander takes his father’s abuse out on Katherine, who in turn mistreats Anna. The result is a spate of denigration and eventually murder, and while “modern, liberal” reviewers were near gleeful at the first killings given who the victims are, they blanched at those that came after, it being quite another thing for a woman to “shoot her husband’s horse, which whinnies in agony…Movies are games of moral relativism, and Lady Macbeth quickly turns its feminist heroine into something far more disturbing.”5 Be disturbed not because she’s a multiple murderess, mind, but because one of her victims happens to be an innocent equine. It’s perfectly acceptable, laudable even, to slaughter people…as long as they represent something one finds distasteful.

Katherine doesn’t stop there, and there is one murder (human) in particular which more than qualifies this movie for the adjective horrific. There is no blood, no gore. Instead, the scene in which it occurs is shot from a single angle in real time, excrutiatingly so, and is so manifestly disturbing that shaking one’s head in shocked disbelief isn’t an inappropriate reaction (it’s the one I had, anyway). One of this movie’s most effective aspects is its use of stillness, quiet, and yes, order, to heighten the horror of what happens onscreen. The first murder, for instance, is in no way presaged, occuring off-stage, the camera focused (as it almost always is) on Katherine’s expression as she calmly sips her tea while banging is heard in another room. Her only action is to nonchalantly place a chair underneath the door handle. It is so low-key that when she offhandedly tells Anna to run fetch the doctor, the viewer is left thinking: what just happened here?

The film doesn’t really have what could be called a score; only in two instances is music (of a sort) heard – an ethereal, haunting few seconds of sound over an otherwise deafening silence. Hands sliding down bannisters, laces drawn through eyelets, doors and shutters closing, ungentle brushstrokes applied to hair; one can almost hear the dust motes thud against the hardwood in the stillness of these rooms. The camera often focuses on a room for long seconds before a character enters it. It’s the filmic equivalent of being able to hear a pin drop. The silence, the stillness, is audible.

Within all this order and stillness is Katherine, and Pugh is a wonder in the role. Without an actress of her caliber, there is little chance the movie would work as well as it does to provoke both shock and depth of consideration. There isn’t a great deal of dialogue, and given the structure of the film, what needs to be conveyed is done primarily through Pugh’s facial expressions and the subtlety of her performance, leaving the viewer watching intently, wondering what lies beneath. Some commenting on the film, in order to fit with their wished-for themes, wanted to believe it a case of a soul twisted by mistreatment, unwarranted stricture, marginalization – one who turns into an oppressor because she was herself oppressed. Yet this is not what the filmmaker, William Oldroyd, seems to offer onscreen through these stellar performances. For my part, based on Pugh’s portrayal, I’m inclined to think the sociopathy inherent. The film is careful to stress the newness of Katherine’s situation: it begins with her wedding, and other aspects delineating the timeline make it unlikely to occur over much more than a few months from start to finish, perhaps even a few weeks. It would be difficult to successfully argue that a few weeks of boredom and stricture could fundamentally change one’s innate character. This is a departure from the novella, in which Katerina had been married (oppressed) for at least five years. Pugh manages to convey that, yes, here is a woman who has slipped the tether of her subjugation, violently. But the overall impression is that she has always been sociopathic; she’d simply not had a target for expression. She is not turned into what she becomes – she was born that way, and when her true nature  breaches those seemingly still waters, abruptly surfacing, it is terrifying.

Her counterpart, Sebastian, is likewise undone by ennui; he’s terribly bored, as he tells Katherine on the first night he strongarms himself into her bedroom, oblivious as to what he’s getting into. While Sebastian is taken aback by some of Katherine’s actions, he initially seems to be suffering almost a folie à deux. By the time his lover makes statements such as “I’d rather stop you breathing than have you doubt how I feel,” he’s already far too entangled to escape. As in the best of noir, he now knows the femme fatale for what she is, but it’s too late. He may want escape, but he’s powerless to effect it. Jarvis does well with the role he’s given, alternately cocksure and lost, but the other standout here is undeniably Naomi Ackie. She also has very little dialogue; at one point terror literally renders her mute. But from the widening of her frightened eyes to vicious kneading of bread dough to the way her scrubbing threatens to strip skin from spine as she bathes her mistress, the viewer is always aware of the emotions that predominate: fear and anger. Anna has good reason to be angry…and terrified.

So if you’re looking to be disturbed by something a bit out of the ordinary, with a brilliant lead and supporting actress as well as a strong secondary cast and a visually arresting aesthetic, look no further than Lady Macbeth. Reserved, Victorian, chilling.


  1. Guy Lodge. “Film Review: Lady Macbeth.” 9 September 2016. Variety (https://variety.com/2016/film/reviews/lady-macbeth-review-1201853847/). Accessed 15 October 2018.
  2. Manohla Dargis. “‘Lady Macbeth’ in Hoop Skirts.” 13 July 2017. The New York Times (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/13/movies/lady-macbeth-review.html?referrer=google_kp). Accessed 13 October 2018.
  3. David Edelstein. “In the Torrid Lady Macbeth, Oppression Flows in All Directions.” 12 July 2017. Vulture (http://www.vulture.com/2017/07/lady-macbeth-movie-review.html). Accessed 15 October 2018.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.

About the author: Bethany Latham is the Managing Editor of Historical Novels Review. She has authored various nonfiction books, numerous journal and magazine articles, and is a regular reviewer for HNR and Booklist.

Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 86 (November 2018)

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