The woman is white. She wears white, of course, because it is her wedding. But she is also white. Her skin, I mean. This matters. It’s important. Her name is Katherine (Florence Pugh—formidable), but it is about to be Mrs. Lester. That is what we know. Anything about her family, her background, or what defined her before she carried around the title of “Mrs.” like a bag of stones, is left unsaid. She marries a man at least two dozen years her senior in an old, echoey church, the tenor of his singing voice bouncing off the stone walls. Mid-song, Katherine falls silent.
Lady Macbeth, the film released this past year, is adapted from Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, the novella by Nikolai Leskov published in 1865, not to be confused with Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, the opera by Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich in 1934. None of these titles, you may notice, are Macbeth—the man, the myth, the etc. The Scottish play. You have affiliations, no doubt, with the name “Macbeth.” You went to high school. You know of the dagger in the night, and you know of the wife, lurking in the background. “Out, out––” But Lady Macbeth does not have witches or moving trees or ghosts or soldiers.
Just the woman.
Katherine’s life is quiet. I mean that literally. Her husband, Alexander (Paul Hilton—mean) has no interest in her physically or emotionally, forcing her each evening to strip silently and face the wall as he masturbates. His father, Boris (Christopher Fairbank—meaner, still), the owner of the estate, barely acknowledges her, breaking his silence only to occasionally scold her.
Every day, Katherine is laced up in a fine gown—royal blue, maybe, or a deep opalescent purple—and travels downstairs to sit on the couch by herself. She stares wordlessly at the clock. Early in the film, she asks her husband’s permission to walk the grounds; “I like the fresh air, I like being outside,” she stammers, before her husband forces her to strip in front of him. That’s the end of that conversation.
Boredom sets in in a cold and furious way. The house creaks whether or not she moves.
I saw Lady Macbeth in the dead weight of summer with two male friends. This was, as politely as I can say it, a mistake. I don’t think we had the language to talk about it afterwards. I don’t blame them; it’s me, too. In a world where we are just beginning to expose the frequent and violent effects of patriarchy to men (and they, too, for once, seem to be listening–some of them, at least), it will take a long time to explain how women—white women—have worked to uphold this system. The language often escapes me, leaves me speechless, confused, sad, and tired. There is unimaginable work in speaking up.
There is a character that screenwriter Alice Birch adds to Lady Macbeth, one not present in the novel nor the opera. This is Anna (Naomi Ackie—heartbreaking), a maid in the Lester household, who is the first black woman we meet in the story. She and Katherine have a tepid relationship: They make small-talk, but Katherine is mostly uninterested and unmoved by Anna.
One afternoon, her husband and his father out of town, Katherine is startled awake from her nap by the clattering of footsteps on cobblestone. The silence is broken. She follows the sound outside, to the barn, where a group of farmhands and stable boys have stripped Anna and thrown her into the scale they use to measure sows. Katherine, furious, forces the men to face the wall and wordlessly lowers Anna back down to the ground, letting her run off with her clothing.
One man, Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis—unpredictable), is new. “May we turn around yet, ma’am?” he asks, taking an easy drag of a cigarette.
Katherine stares at him and then asks: “How much would I weigh?”
“Would you like me to check?” he laughs.
“Guess,” she orders.
He disobeys, grabbing her in his arms. She’s no match for his size, but Katherine wrestles herself away, legs kicking and flailing. When she shoves him away from her, she’s startled by her capacity, her strength. It surprises her, what she can do when pushed.
Later, when they meet in the hallway, Anna attempts to apologize to Katherine for the incident, but Katherine interrupts her. She has no interest in Anna’s story, what went wrong.
“The one that called you a pig, Anna, what was his name?” Katherine is annoyed. Anna doesn’t get it: it’s not about her. It’s about him, Sebastian. Anna’s pain, her experience, it has nothing to do with Katherine. So Anna answers the question, and Katherine moves along. The two women depart in silence, Anna fighting back tears.
Katherine and Sebastian’s first encounter is almost entirely wordless. “Aren’t you bored, Katherine?” he asks. It’s not: aren’t you attracted to me, don’t you like me, don’t you want me? It isn’t: are you bored?
Of course she’s bored.
He forces himself on her, kissing her roughly, and she fights back, biting down hard on his hand. He steps away and the two breathe, pant, silently, before Katherine kisses him back.
Lady Macbeth has no score, really. Heels click, wood moans, chinaware clinks.
It is essential you feel the empty air of marshes, the weight of silks on a woman’s shoulders, exactly as they are.
Boris returns, annoyingly. After weeks of reckless sex and sleeping naked, Katherine is once again forced back into her corset, guzzling wine as Anna laces her up. At dinner, the two trade barbs, and when Boris requests his preferred type of wine, Anna informs him it’s gone. Used up. Drank.
Off to the side, Katherine sits in a chair against the wall. Her chin rests playfully on her hand. She does not take her eyes off of Anna, who knows. Who always knows. The affair, the wine, all of it. Anna takes the fall, sheepishly, silently. Not out of generosity, or kindness of spirit. Don’t mistake it for an act of goodwill towards her mistress. Anna is afraid––every person in the room is a threat. And when she takes the fall, she is brought quite literally to her knees, ordered to crawl out of the room.
Katherine grins then, and she grins once more when she poisons Boris soon after. Anna trembles as Katherine beckons her to the breakfast table, as Boris dies one room over. From that point on, Anna doesn’t say a word.
In his memoirs, Dmitri Shostakovich writes of Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District: “The story amazes the reader with its unusual vividness and depth, and in terms of being the most truthful and tragic portrayal of the destiny of a talented, smart, and outstanding woman.”
It takes two gunshots for Katherine to kill her husband’s horse, the blowback from the first shot knocking her all the way over onto her back. The horse whinnies and screams. As it bleeds out on the ground, Katherine, too, cries, putting small handfuls of dirt on the horse’s body. It is horrible. This is the only scene in the entire film with any scoring, a dark ambient tone supporting the weight of the moment. It’s good, I’m grateful for it. In silence it would have been too much to bear.
In the wake of her husband’s death, things start to feel a little rosy. Katherine and Sebastian start to play dress-up: him adorned in her late husband’s clothes, her drifting down to breakfast in her bathrobe. They fuck on the floor.
Things don’t stay this simple for too long—they never do, this is life, I mean, fiction, I mean—and one afternoon, a woman named Agnes (Golda Rosheuvel) and her grandson, a small boy named Teddy (Anton Palmer), show up. Teddy is Katherine’s late husband’s ward and the rightful inheritor of the Lester estate. It seems as though the dearly departed Mr. Lester could, in fact, get it up. Agnes and Teddy are also black, for what it’s worth, and Katherine knows this, sees this. They may not be employed by her, but in an old, white society, there is a power she may yet still have.
Katherine silently watches Teddy play from her bedroom window. Holy fucking shit, I thought to myself, the theater dead quiet, my fists clenched, is she going to kill a kid?
Here’s the thing: Teddy is not quiet. He’s a chatty, bubbly, beautiful little boy. And Katherine, oddly, seems to like him. He’s the only man—Sebastian included—who seems to take any interest in her interior life. He asks her about her mother, about birds, about plants. It’s the only time any male figure has broken the chain of abuse she has suffered.
“She’s a disease,” Sebastian says of Katherine towards the end of the film. If that’s true—it’s true—it’s contagious.
After the 2016 election, countless people wondered aloud, aimlessly, to no one in particular, how so many people could vote for a Republican candidate. More specifically, they wondered how so many women—white women—would do such a thing. “Don’t they know they’re voting against their own self-interest?” they’d ask. These questions echoed throughout the year, bouncing off the walls of our collective subconscious, once again resurfacing during this past fall’s senate race in Alabama.
Haven’t we learned by now? They’re voting directly within their own interests. These women are in it for themselves. I understand, better now than ever before, how Lady Macbeth unsettles its audience. How on one hand, you don’t want to see Katherine mistreated by the men in her life, but on the other hand, you can’t bear to watch the way Katherine abuses Anna. How not all women are on the same side. These things are complicated, multi-faceted, frustrating. Women are not heroes by simply being women. A woman who is a killer is not a feminist hero, no matter how many men she defeats, if she takes up the system that once empowered those who brutalized her.
We are learning slowly, with great difficulty, that the simplicity of an “all men are awful” critique of the patriarchy does not absolve women, especially white women, who have pillaged and stolen and committed acts of violence for self-preservation. To shed the assumption that a woman who defeats a man in any way is automatically a feminist will take long, nuanced work. It will take conversation. It will take action.
I live alone, by the way. Of my own volition. It’s nice. I need the solitude and the space after a long day. On bad days, though, the quiet drives me insane. It bends back on itself, almost feels like there’s a little voice just screaming inside your head. I have to leave, immediately, go for a walk around the block. Fill my body with the noise of trees and shoes and cars before I can safely retreat back home. Maybe this makes me sound insane. Other people I know who live alone will chatter politely to the themselves, just to break up the energy in the room. I can’t do that; it feels unnatural. So I let the quiet drive me out.
Over the past year, I have seen “YOUR SILENCE WILL NOT SAVE YOU” written on many a sign or poster. This phrase lives with me now. It’s moved in. A roommate that never lets up, that cackles and creaks endlessly, tags along to outings and parties and workdays. Though I work to speak out, to break through the thick ice of our collective silence, in my heart I know: we are so far beyond saving.
The walls do start to close in on Katherine. There is an attempt, however failed, to shut all of this down. People speak up. They yell, in fact. They point fingers. And she, too, turns red, her cheeks flushed, maintaining her innocence, her ignorance, to the injustices and cruelty of the world. How much damage can one woman really do, honestly? (A shit ton, is the answer here.)
“Anna will say if otherwise. I did nothing,” Katherine asserts. Anna will say, she says, of a woman she’s traumatized into silence. Anna will say, she says, demanding a defense that barely exists. Anna will say, she says, so she can get away with saying nothing.
When asked what happened, Anna stares in stunned silence. Don’t we all. There is no more dialogue.