The Buried Aggression in Lady Macbeth - Pacific Standard

The Buried Aggression in Lady Macbeth

Pacific Standard recommends Lady Macbeth, a film adaptation that reminds viewers in 2017 that women aren't just consumers of romantic comedies.
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William Oldroyd receives the award for international movie for his movie Lady Macbeth on stage during the Award Night Ceremony during the 12th Zurich Film Festival.

William Oldroyd receives the award for international movie for his movie Lady Macbeth on stage during the Award Night Ceremony during the 12th Zurich Film Festival.

Lady Macbeth is a movie that defies expectations even before it embroils viewers in its twisty, tragic plot. Contrary to what the title suggests, Lady Macbeth is an adaptation of a 19th-century Russian novel by Nikolai Leskov, not the play by Shakespeare. Though screenwriter Alice Birch set the film in rural Northern England in 1865, this bloody revenge story is more The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo than Madame Bovary. And though it doesn't have a female director (first-time feature director William Oldroyd helms), it may be one of the most thoughtful movies aimed at and about women in 2017.

In the last few years, thrillers about women turning to violence to break free from oppressive social norms, like Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, have made big money at the box office, fueled by predominantly female audiences. But as Lady Macbeth reminds viewers, female-led, violent psychological thrillers have long been with us, in (to pick three examples) the works of Patricia Highsmith, Shirley Jackson, and Leskov. The film centers on Katherine (Florence Pugh), an unhappy teenage bride whose father-in-law compels her to make an oath to be faithful to her middle-aged husband while he's away on business. When her father-in-law discovers she's broken her promise, his punishment ultimately leads Katherine and her lover to commit a series of murders in a desperate attempt to be together. Unearthing the buried aggressions patriarchal oppression creates, Lady Macbeth grants femininity the dark side it's always had—and reminds viewers in 2017 that women aren't just consumers of romantic comedies.

A version of this story originally appeared in the May/June 2017 issue of Pacific Standard. Subscribe now and get eight issues/year or purchase a single copy of the magazine.

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