Look like th’innocent flower, But be the serpent under’t

Lady Macbeth (William Oldroyd, 2016)

I confess I downloaded this assuming it was something entirely different and indeed Korean, but I was assuming it was a variant on The Scottish Play with a focus on Lady M. It was an odd experience, revising my sense of the film’s setting, from eleventh century to Elizabethan to mid-nineteenth century. I was, to be honest, tempted to give up, but I am glad I persevered.

It turns out to be based on Nikolai Leskov’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (Леди Макбет Мценского уезда, 1865), with Northumberland standing in for Mtsensk and not afraid to abandon the original ending for something more disturbing.

Katherine Lester (Florence Pugh) has been bought for a loveless marriage to the often absent Boris (Christopher Fairbank) by his father Alexander (Paul Hilton). Katherine seems to be ordered to stay in the house that we never quite see from the outside and seems determined to go for walks on her own anyway. On one of these she finds the new stablehand Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis) engaged in sexualised teasing of the maid Anna (Naomi Ackie) alongside the other workers and steps in to save Anna. Later, Sebastian comes to Katherine’s room and the two begin an affair, which could prove distastrous if anyone else finds out.

Well, they could find out, but then you’d have to kill them.

A lot of recent young male British directors — indeed female ones, too — seem to aspire to making horror films and this is no exception, although it’s in the gothic tradition of Jane Eyre and Rebecca rather than Ben Wheatley or something like last year’s Saint Maud. There’s a complex critique of the evils of the industrial revolution — although the Black British characters of Sebastian and Anna must be children or grandchildren of slaves or others brought to England to service modern economics. Their ethnicity is both visible and invisible. Sebastian’s identity is eroticised and his racialised masculine threat is troubling, especially when contrasted to the apparently onanistic Boris — whose own desires lie elsewhere and are equally racialised. Whilst Sebastian is repeatedly punished for his actions, his treatment of Anna should not by overlooked. Anna, meanwhile, does not deserve any of it, although her discomfort is obvious when she is forced to eat at the table with Katherine.

It is not clear where Katherine comes from and it is not clear why she has been bought — a sexual slavery comparable to an ethnic labour one — and I am not convinced her actions are entirely comparable to her Shakespearean source. If she can escape the trap that is only partly of her own making, it is clear this can only be a temporary freedom.

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