The following article was edited by Thursday Simpson.
CW: This review contains descriptions of rape, child death, and horrific acts of racism, in addition to that, there are also spoilers.
Lady Macbeth, directed by William Oldroyd and written by Alice Birch, is a 2016 film set in the 1860s. It is an adaptation of the Russian novella, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District by Nikolai Leskov. I should note that I have not read the original novel this film is based on.
Katherine (Florence Pugh) is arranged to be married to a richer and older man, Alexander Lester (Paul Hilton), at the insistence of her father. Her husband turns out to be an absolute bore and she falls asleep during social events in addition to neglecting her ‘wifely duties.’ Her father in law, Boris (Christopher Fairbank), begs her to reconsider her role as the most significant woman of the household while her husband is away for business.
At first I can feel a certain sympathy for Katherine. The film is set during a time when women were demeaned and devalued. But throughout the film it becomes clear that white privilege reigns over all.
Anna (Naomi Ackie) is Katherine’s personal maid. Her experience is tremendously different from Katherine’s as a Black woman in 1860’s rural England.
Katherine finds Anna literally tied up in a game the groomsmen (who are also mostly non-white) plays while her husband is away. When Katherine asks what they are doing one of the men says they are, “weighing a sow.” She demands that Anna be untied and they oblige. You notice Katherine’s eyes lingering on one of the grooms for too long. Thus begins their affair.
Sebastian’s (Cosmo Jarvis) picks Katherine up and teases her a bit yet she doesn’t leave the situation scared by any means. The next day she embarks on a walk to further pique his interest. Sebastian’s first encounter with her is not consensual, i.e. he rapes her. Needless to say, racist portrayals of people of color like this often costs dreams, lives, and fundamental human rights.
Filmmakers perpetuate propaganda through the media they produce, and whether they do so consciously or unconsciously, they should take responsibility for such stories. In this sense, Lady Macbeth was repeatedly careless.
While the affair between Katherine and Sebastian is later demonstrated as more mutually passionate, the damage has been done.
Anna feels a torn sense of loyalty; that between Katherine and her community and doing what will keep her alive. The nights are loud, the wine runs out and Boris returns. He asks Anna for his favorite drink, and as Katherine and Sebastian have consumed it all it’s naturally missing. Boris interrogates Anna thinking she drank it, and tellingly Katherine stays silent. Her silence is as loud as her words. Her silence is protective of only herself and her whiteness. Boris tells Anna to get on all fours like “an animal” for having stolen his sacred beverage. The way Black and brown people in the film are dehumanized without given the space to restore their own narrative is incredibly disturbing.
Boris eventually figures out what is going on and punishes Sebastian by locking him in the shed and beating him. Katherine poisons her father in law’s food as revenge and calmly talks to Anna while he chokes to death in a room Katherine locked him in. Anna is visibly conflicted and traumatized and screams herself to sleep until she is literally mute. Katherine not only stole her dignity and, her pride but her ability to tell her side of the story. It is painful to witness. There are no enjoyable moments in the film to follow, there is no retribution for Anna, for Sebastian.
Katherine’s husband comes home when she is with Sebastian and is least expecting him. He leaves before Alexander makes his way upstairs but forgets his belt which doesn’t go unnoticed. Katherine offers several excuses but Alexander believes none of them. She brings Sebastian into their room in an attempt to make her husband jealous. He is appalled. Alexander furiously goes after Sebastian and starts to fight him but she draws Alexander away and essentially bludgeons him to death. They then bury his body in the woods surrounding the estate and shoot Alexander’s horse until it’s dead.
An older Black woman, Agnes (Golda Rosheuvel), presents herself and her grandson Teddy to Katherine, explaining that Alexander fathered a child with her daughter. Katherine questions the validity of her claims, but Agnes has papers and documents to prove their integrity. Anna watches on, mute and observing but obviously uncomfortable.
Sebastian feels sour over their arrival and takes it out on Katherine, withdrawing himself from her, physically and emotionally. Katherine realizes she is pregnant and attempts to tell him but he pushes her away.
Teddy and Katherine bond as she asks him about his mother and if he misses her. At first, it seems they are on good terms and she is feeling companionship and love for this child.
Some time lapses. The camera cuts to Teddy playing in the courtyard and Katherine going out and scolding him and him running away frightened. Sebastian finds him at the edge of a waterfall and takes him back. Teddy is coughing and showing signs of sickness. His grandmother stays at his bedside, eager for him to get well. Katherine convinces Agnes to sleep while she watches over Teddy. Katherine then persuades Sebastian to help her suffocate Teddy in his sleep.
The next day he is discovered and Katherine makes up feeble explanations for the bruises found on this poor child’s body. The doctor asks if she isn’t sure that someone came in to harm the child.
Sebastian enters and blurts out the truth, that they had in fact killed Teddy and that Katherine had killed Boris and Alexander. Katherine accuses Sebastian of lying and insists that he committed all these crimes with Anna and begs her to speak if it’s not true. Anna, of course says nothing as she is unable to speak. It becomes obvious in this moment that Katherine committed none of those acts out of love for Sebastian. She protects herself and her white skin above what is morally right, above the life of a vulnerable child, above that of her lover. She never faced the same risk that Sebastian or Anna did and she never had to imagine it.
The most disturbing aspect of Lady Macbeth to me is that Katherine’s narrative was the loudest and most prominent. There were not many scenes dedicated to the characters’ whose humanity she stole. They seemed to be a side note in life and in death. The film feels complicit in the racial violence and civil unrest present then and in the world today. The dangerousness of white silence is severely underestimated, it is only the actively and overtly violent racism (Lady Macbeth is not lacking in that either) which is seen as a threat by white America. The costs of this are incalculable: there are lasting ramifications for how minorities are both represented and not represented in media and film; there are real-life consequences when it comes to the demonstration of white silence and white saviorism.
And so, it is what isn’t said in the movie which leaves me the most uncomfortable. Rather, the scenes that never happened, the camera’s lack of awareness of the lives of the Black people and people of color in the film who ultimately suffered the most.