Lady Macbeth put me in mind of an unforgettable scene in the otherwise forgettable Shanghai Knights.
In the Jackie Chan-Owen Wilson comedy, Fann Wong plays a Chinese woman walking through the midnight fog in Victorian London when she’s confronted by Jack the Ripper, who is fatally unaware she is something of a fiend herself — in the field of kung fu.
She beats his butt and knocks him into the Thames.
With apologies to Wonder Woman, it’s the best mash-up of modern feminism and European history to date, and it’s only 36 seconds long.
Lady Macbeth is a mash-up of a different sort — it’s not strictly Shakespeare, but based on a Nikolai Leskov novel that transplanted elements of the play to 1865 Russia. Like Shanghai Knights, this film adaptation is a period drama, but the actions of the woman are faintly anachronistic — modern attitudes transplanted into 19th-century characters.
The title character is Katherine (Florence Pugh), a Victorian teen placed in an arranged marriage to a wealthy and dreary older man (Paul Hilton), and ensconced in a remote, chilly house, where she is told (seriously) to stay in indoors and to get pregnant.
Director William Oldroyd wants to highlight the idea that in 1865 a woman in England was considered the property of her husband. He does so via what we might call the livestock sequence: In early scenes Katherine has her long mane harshly brushed by a servant, then she’s trussed up in a corset and positioned at the dinner table next to the rest of the meat.
Soon, she’s summoned to the marriage bed, and it’s where the movie springs the first of many surprises. There isn’t much dialogue — none for Katherine — but Pugh makes it amusingly clear that Katherine is intensely curious and even enthusiastic about what’s meant to transpire.
She is a young woman of considerable appetites, and when they are not sufficiently met by her husband, she enlists the assistance of the estate’s muscular groomsman (Cosmo Jarvis), setting in motion scandal and chaos that bother Katherine not in the least.
She literally laughs at the fallout from her reckless behavior, and given her circumstances, it seems like admirable independence. That changes as Oldroyd lifts the veil on Katherine’s character, almost literally — we first view her in bridal garb that hints at things concealed.
Katherine treats the help poorly, and when she encounters obstacles to her desires, she removes them with a startling ruthlessness. That her principle servant (Naomi Ackie) is black complicates matters, perhaps more than it should. Oldroyd cast the movie after looking through period photographs and artwork, and found there were many Anglo-Africans in the north of England. In his view, period movies have tended to ignore this, and so race, in this case, is just an accurate period detail.
But it’s likely to complicate the way viewers, especially in the United States, experience the film. Seeing black characters chained and abused provokes an inevitable response, and certainly adds to our already conflicted view of Katherine.
You can fairly conclude she’s really kind of a rotten person, but she does stick in your mind. Much of the credit goes to Pugh, who’s an obvious talent, with the kind of readable and expressive face the camera adores.
After Lady Macbeth, she was immediately signed to star in half a dozen other movies, and it’s easy to see why.
Directed by William Oldroyd. With Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis, Naomi Ackie, and Paul Hilton. Distributed by Roadside Attractions.
- Running time: 89 minutes
- Parents guide: R (violence, nudity)
- Playing at: Ritz Five and Bryn Mawr Film Institute