CHARLES TAYLOR & DAVID EDELSTEIN SPLIT ON OLDROYD'S DEBUT FEATURE
Lady Macbeth review by Charles Taylor, Newsweek (excerpt)
[William] Oldroyd and his scenarist, Alice Birch, must think they are doing something far more complex, luring the audience into cheering for Katherine but making her acts of violence more and more awful until we’re revolted by her. But to what end? By making Katherine so evil, the movie falls into the old sexist shibboleths about scheming women, particularly sex-starved ones. Pugh, who bears an amusing resemblance to Miley Cyrus, gives a spirited performance that doesn’t shy away from her character’s villainy. But the distant, intellectualized approach keeps us from feeling any complicity with Katherine. She’s funny laughing at Anna’s shock at her open adultery, but Pugh is stuck with more of a conceit than a character. The source of Birch’s screenplay, a short story by 19th-century Russian writer Nikolai Leskov, has the robust wisdom of a peasant myth. How could anyone read that story, with its lush descriptions of nature and the horrified sympathy it accords its protagonist, and come up with this joyless, colorless movie?
If there were any justice in the world of film criticism, Oldroyd would be getting the accusations of racism that—wrongly, and in ignorance of the clear meaning of their films—Sofia Coppola is getting for The Beguiled and Ana Lily Amirpour for The Bad Batch. He has made all the characters who are the least deserving targets of Katherine’s violence black. (Sebastian is biracial, and Katherine’s maid and two other prominent characters are black.) I don’t know how many black people were in Northumberland in 1865, but in this movie, race is used for the sole purpose of heightening their victimization, and it’s ugly.
At Cannes and other film festivals, Lady Macbeth was acclaimed for its daring. But for an unapologetic celebration of devious women, Out of the Past and Brian De Palma’s Femme Fatale are much tougher. As a portrait of a psychopath in the guise of dutiful wife, 1945’s Leave Her to Heaven has more punch. If an art-house film gets credit for what commercial movies have already done much better, then Katherine’s victims aren’t the only suckers here.
Lady Macbeth review by David Edelstein, Vulture (excerpt)
Oldroyd made his name as a theater director, and in his debut film he goes with his strengths. Lady Macbeth is largely confined to the plain, masculine house and its stables, and Oldroyd and cinematographer Ari Wegner show the grinding unsensuality of the place without resorting to the kind of overlong shots designed to make us literally experience her boredom.
They subtly establish a second protagonist, the maid Anna, who is even more cruelly abused by the old master (Christopher Fairbank) and later spies on Katherine and her stable-boy lover, Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), through a keyhole. From our modern, liberal perspective, it’s tempting to see Katherine’s revenge on the decrepit industrialist as payback for Anna’s humiliation as well as her own. When a photograph is taken of her beside the upright open coffin of the dead geezer — who has also brutally whipped the lowly Sebastian — we want to cheer.
Movies are games of moral relativism, though, and Lady Macbeth quickly turns its feminist heroine into something far more disturbing. It’s one thing for a woman to murder overpowerful white misogynists, another to shoot her husband’s horse, which whinnies in agony. And the movie’s racial overtones are thunderous. The perpetually traumatized Anna is black. A little boy who shows up midway through — Katherine’s husband’s adorable illegitimate child and ward — is of mixed race and excruciatingly vulnerable. Sebastian’s complexion is on the dark side, too, Jarvis being of Armenian extraction. When you introduce race, white feminism tends to fly out the window — as Sofia Coppola learned after a deluge of criticism for culling a black character from her remake of The Beguiled. Applause for having trained the female gaze on a demonic-female myth has quickly yielded to abuse for being a privileged white woman allegedly minimizing the horror of slavery.
Oldroyd and Birch make no such gaffes. The movie’s larger point — which I find irrefutable — is that some people who have been victimized for life are not just inclined to speak truth to power but to abuse what power they have over people with less of it. August Wilson knew that, which is why his plays resonate far beyond melodrama. So does Lady Macbeth. It eats into the mind with its vision of evil as a contagion that transforms victims into oppressors.