As this award season’s frontrunner reveal themselves, there are many performances that were surprisingly overlooked. One of performance that I thought would, for sure, be Oscar-bait was from the newcomer, Florence Pugh in the haunting Lady Macbeth. William Oldroyd’s directorial debut in cinema has received critical acclaim and award attention in the UK but, shamefully, didn’t translate to the American awards circuit. By the trailer, alone, it looked like a film that critics would eat up.
Pugh plays Katherine, a young woman who is forced into a loveless, arranged marriage with a man who doesn’t have the slightest of interest in her and a father-in-law who makes it known that her only use in the family is to supply an heir. The practically imprisoned protagonist is so bored you can feel her boredom just watching. But that’s not to say it was boring to watch. It’s quite the opposite. Watching Pugh portray the sheer boredom of being stuck with her own presence day-in and day-out was just as intriguing, and perhaps more realistic, as watching her have manic breakdowns would have been. Any actor or filmmaker who can express deep-seeded boredom without boring an audience should be praised for doing something that is nearly impossible without extreme skill. Katherine’s boredom soon subsides when she begins an affair with a servant, Sebastian, and becomes empowered in her mental and sexual liberation. The thrill and rebellion of the star-crossed romance fill the heroine’s emptiness and makes you hopeful that she can, at least, survive her circumstances. The character who first evokes pity now receives cheers for doing what her heart desires, even if that means murdering her husband.
That empowerment, however, turns into something dark and sinister. Katherine assures her lover that she will do anything to keep them together. At first, the protagonist’s dedication to her love seems brave, but it becomes apparent that she is ruthless enough to stop anyone who may get in the way of getting what she wants, even her scared and innocent handmaid, Anna. Katherine’s new found strength and passion make her love for Sebastian questionable as the control becomes more important than the man himself. The extreme lengths Katherine goes to the protect what’s hers brings her heroism into question. Without giving away the epic ending, the character that begins as the protagonist seems to become the antagonist.
Pugh’s performance is powerful in its ambiguity. She titters the line between hero and villain, and it’s never entirely clear what her character is thinking. If the first half of the film argues why you should sympathize with Katherine, then the latter half argues why you should hate every ounce of her being. Her breathtaking performance causes the audience to question whether she was always a cruel, manipulative person or if her circumstances made her sinister, just like the Shakespearean character the title alludes to. I, personally, fell on the side of despising Katherine, but I couldn’t decide my opinion until the very end. That’s what makes Pugh’s performance extraordinary. Even after Katherine does some questionable things in the middle, Pugh forces you to refrain from making a final judgement on her character until the final scene. So few times have I seen characters with such range, starting as sympathetic and pitiful, to strong and romantic, to cruel and inhumane, let alone a female character. To watch Pugh pull off this wickedly complex character is only more impressive knowing that she is a newcomer.
While the Oscar race for leading actress is very strong this year, I think it’s a shame that Pugh’s performance wasn’t at least on the shortlist.