katski’s review published on Letterboxd:
This is a slow, dreadful burn with no OST, just the diegetic sounds of waterfalls, wet kissing, wind in trees, etc. Shots are held long so we really soak in the horror of what’s taking place, and characters’ corresponding reactions. It’s morbid, erotic, thoughtful, and absolutely genius.
Florence Pugh gives a masterclass in acting despite being only 19 during the film’s 2015 production. She plays a weirdly apathetic English mistress, Catherine Leicester, who lives on an estate that I assume is somewhere “oup” north based on the accent Pugh takes on. Maybe the Scottish Highlands? She says “away” like “ooweey” and “take” like “tehk”.
Lady Macbeth turns that popular “white girl boss” movie premise on its head, wherein white women reject sexist society in a raceless, classless, asexual vacuum. Think Mona Lisa Smile or The Beguiled. But the film doesn’t just acknowledge this trope, this discrepancy between films and reality. It takes a step further, towards bitter satire.
Catherine uses people who are also oppressed by society, but for entirely different reasons, be it race or class. Brown and poor people are stepping stones on her path to autonomy and self-indulgence, which is, ironically, also how white men treat Mrs Leicester. Her husband uses her nude body to masturbate; her father-in-law “bought” Catherine for the land his family would inherit from their marriage; and of course, she is needed to produce a male heir who would have a greater claim to the Leicester estate.
Catherine wants to be free of these duties pushed onto her, but without losing her status as a relatively wealthy, landowning white woman in 19th century England. In other words, it’s not just plain agency she’s after. She wants the privilege white men have, to claim what they want—sex, wine, sleep, leisure—without consequence. And that is where the intersectionality of Lady Macbeth lies. Catherine is simultaneously the oppressed because of her sex and the oppressor because the hedonistic lifestyle she wants to lead depends on subjugating people of a certain class and race. Her freedom encroaches on the freedom of others.
Yet the film initially wants to endear you to Catherine. What we later recognize as borderline sociopathic tendencies seems like a stick-it-to-the-man pluckiness at first. Her disregard for society’s rules is almost charming, until it extends to rules that maybe ought to be respected. Like, caring for others somewhat and not murdering innocents. Many reviewers see Lady Macbeth as the progress of Catherine’s moral decline, but I think assuming she ever had a moral compass plays into the biases about white women that this film is trying to expose. It’s much more likely that Catherine was always manipulative and apathetic, just leashed in like a dog about to bite.
Lady Macbeth is too ambiguous to firmly speculate about any aspect of it, however. The effect of race, gender, and class on character motivations are so intricately weaved in that’s it difficult to declare any character inherently bad or good. This is definitely a film you will think back on years after seeing it for the first time.