Directed by William Oldroyd (2016)
by Sandy DeVito
This is some real mixed bag shit, let me tell you. Also, spoilers, because honestly I can't talk about my opinion of this film without including plot points from the third act.
Let me open with a quote by the director, William Oldroyd, from an interview he did with Flickering Myth: "Everyone in the film is trapped in some way. Alexander is trapped by his relationship with his father, Anna is trapped by her circumstance, although in some ways she’s freer than Katherine because she’s allowed to go outside for example and develop friendships with the other servants. Sebastian is trapped by circumstance, by not being able to earn a proper living and the fact that he will always remain in servitude until he gets the opportunity to move into the big house with Katherine. So it is really about entrapment for everyone in this film and not just Katherine."
Okaaaaay. I'm not going to bother giving you an overview of the plot of this film (y'all have heard of IMDb, right?), instead I'm going to explain why this quote from Oldroyd, a white man, specifically the part about Anna, an innocent black servant who Katherine (Florence Pugh) uses as a scapegoat and condemns to die, is horseshit. The film focuses primarily on Katherine - clearly she is meant to be the protagonist. Oldroyd mentions the way the exposition often focuses on her breathing later on in that interview - we are constantly brought close to Katherine's thinking and the confines of her own motivations. Clearly the film is meant to also be about the confinement that Oldroyd mentions in the above quote, in some ways, but Katherine is undoubtedly the focal point of everything that transpires. During the first half of the film, there were many instances where I felt empathy for Katherine, who is married to an older man who she does not love, who cannot (or will not) give her physical affection. She is confined to the large house that belongs to her husband, is forbidden to go outside, and is largely ignored by him and his elderly father. These sort of circumstances are neither new nor unusual for women of Katherine's time - for most of human history women have been seen as the property of men in a largely patriarchal society.
While the desperation of her situation was something I could feel, the way she chooses to deal with it was where this film lost me. Anna is the black servant (probably not so much a servant as an indentured servant, or just a straight-up slave, as this is never clarified) who waits on Katherine - brushes her hair, gives her a bath, helps her dress. Anna's dialogue is minimal to begin with, but once Katherine begins an affair with Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), one of the hired hands on the estate, and she decides to kill her husband's father and later, her husband, to keep their affair a secret, Anna goes mute from the shock of having witnessed the first murder. Anna is, besides a child who shows up later in the film, the most innocent person in this story, and yet by the end, she is one of the characters who is condemned to the worst fate. Anna, as a black woman, could never be "freer" than Katherine in a story such as this; the long history of racism and slavery in Western culture makes such "freedom" inherently anachronistic. The quote from Oldroyd would have one believe that being able to walk about outside for a few hours erases the cultural stigma of blackness; while Katherine is supposed to be sympathetic, despite her motivations being, in my eyes, not love so much as a desire to pursue her own whims whilst still enjoying the comforts of her situation. Katherine could have proposed she and Sebastian run away together, even steal money, but instead she decides murdering people is the best option she has.
A few days ago a critic who I follow on Twitter, Valerie Complex, mentioned to me after I'd expressed anticipation after one of the teasers that the film is being marketed strangely - and after seeing it, I have to agree with her. It seems as though the marketing is trying to play a feminist angle. White female empowerment that fails to include women from other walks of life is not feminism. The only real feminism is inherently intersectional. If this film had not used an innocent black woman as a scapegoat for Katherine's bad decisions, we could perhaps explain her actions with a more feminist angle; a desire for freedom, a longing for love, a need for independence. But in the end, Katherine is only free because she foists her wrongdoing off on an innocent who could not protect herself due to the prejudices of society.
There are things I liked about this movie; it looks really beautiful, in particular, with gorgeous, melancholy shots of the moors and forests and gray, brooding skies, but any positive characteristics it has are outweighed by how problematic the story is. Oldroyd has a background in stage theater, and honestly that explained a lot of his decisions about shot composition to me; sometimes this feels like a play. I can't help but question it whenever they give a project like this one to a male director; a woman (Alice Birch) wrote the script, but the original material was written by a man (Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk by Nikolai Leskov) as well. If I were given a chance to ask Oldroyd a question about this film, I'd ask him for his motivation regarding directing a story like this, meant to be from the perspective of a white woman, wherein she uses a black woman to further her own ends. From where do we find sympathy for her, or how can she be viewed from a feminist angle, if her desire for autonomy extends no further than herself?
One more thing: it disturbed me that it was implied Sebastian was intending to rape Katherine if she had not consented to sleep with him when he forces his way into her room. The preceding scene where Sebastian is participating in torturing Anna with the other men was distressing to me, and though Katherine stops them, she still consents to intercourse with Sebastian, knowing he was willing to harm Anna for his own amusement. That shit is troubling.