Here’s an exegesis which may or may not explain why Lady Macbeth has been such a hit, within the terms of British independent cinema.
Vibrant young woman finds herself trapped in Brexitland. A place where strangers aren’t trusted, people are repressed, but order reigns. At the first opportunity she embraces Multiculturalism. Literally. Which has been introduced to Brexitland to make the service economy function more effectively. But the rulers of Brexitland have failed to realise that the introduction of Multiculturalism is a perilous danger to the order of the land. Multiculturalism is the opposite of repressed. It fails to adhere to rigid social codes. It gives the youth ideas above their station and gets them listening to that strange tribal music. In short, it’s a disaster. But Brexitland shouldn’t worry, because after the lady of the house has done with the delights of Multiculturalism, she will see the error of her ways, revert to being a true patriot of Brexitland and deport the Multiculturalists.
Perhaps the boldest decision taken in the making of Lady Macbeth, one which has helped to mark it out as a radical re-imagining of the period drama, is the decision to include several black characters in rural 19th c Britain. It took courage on the part of the creators, because it could have provoked ridicule. Film is a naturalist medium and the assumed ‘realism’ of Britain’s pre 20th century history is that everyone was white. Theatre has for a long time been more adventurous (and historically accurate) than cinema, with companies from the RSC downwards employing racially diverse casts. Lady Macbeth’s bold choice is actually a logical one. All the same, it’s perhaps worthwhile enquiring as to what the semiotics really mean? Could the Florence Pugh or Paul Hilton characters have been black? Or is it only the servants who can plausibly be represented by non-white characters? I somehow doubt that the exegesis included above was the intended one on the part of the filmmakers, but if there is a flaw in Oldroyd and Birch’s conception, it’s that it doesn’t really resolve the complexities its choices put into play. Perhaps as a result, the film seems to lose steam as it goes on, with the plot peaking too early, meaning the final act feels like an unsatisfactory add-on.
Nevertheless, the film deserves its plaudits. It’s beautifully shot by Ari Wegner (hints of Vermeer) and edited by Nick Emerson with a suitably severe economy (I can’t remember the last time I saw a British film that was as well edited), There’s a constant sense of an ambition and intelligence at work, seeking to explore the potential of the cinematic form. The first half of the film is marked by a studied restraint which creates a growing sense of tension. If it is unfortunate that this tension is punctured around the hour mark, with another half hour to go, the simple fact of being able to watch a British period film without having to writhe with discomfort at the re-creation of a lollipop vision of this supposedly gilded land’s past, more than makes up for it.