Florence Pugh’s Year of Performing Perfectly

Movies Features Florence Pugh
Florence Pugh’s Year of Performing Perfectly

The first time most folks noticed Florence Pugh, she was playing the lead in William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth, a macabre costume drama about a young woman muzzled by her loveless marriage. Her character, Katherine, draws the viewer’s pity to start with: Her husband, Alexander (Paul Hilton), ignores her, her cruel father-in-law, Boris (Christopher Fairbank), loathes her, and her world is stiflingly small, bound to a grand estate where she dwells and is denied freedom to roam the woods beyond its doors. Eventually, away from the gaze of her male custodians, she has an affair with Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), and then the murders begin.

Katherine’s arc from sympathetic to calculating to pure evil is carried by Oldroyd’s cold, refined filmmaking, but actualized by Pugh’s work as Katherine. It’s in the eyes, and the posture: Her pupils contract over the course of the film, darkening as she’s robbed of all hope and possibility. Katherine admires nature, but she’s forbidden from experiencing it by her role as wife. She wants love, but Alexander won’t touch her. Pugh maintains tight control over her expressions and body language, gradually shifting from dispossessed to self-possessed to something far more sinister. Over time, deciding whether to claim her as heroine or as villain becomes impossible, and that quality gave Pugh her laurels when the film dropped in 2017.

Since then, Pugh’s name has continued to rise in visibility and increase in value, right up to 2019 and likely beyond. She appeared in three films of wildly different genres and tones, evenly sprinkled throughout of the year: February’s Fighting with My Family, June’s Midsommar, and December’s Little Women, the latter of which she’s rightly received the most praise. Whether she enjoys any Oscar attention for being the umpteenth actress to play Amy March or not, 2019 has been Pugh’s year, a year of performances each good on their own but stellar when taken together. She’s an up-and-comer no more. Officially, Pugh is here, demonstrating her versatility in a sports dramedy, a histrionic horror movies, and a warm-hearted reconfiguration of timeless literature.

But 2019 isn’t simply the year of the most Pugh. That distinction goes to 2018, where she appeared in three theatrical films—The Commuter, Outlaw King and Malevolent—plus one television film (King Lear, not merely a riff on Shakespeare but an actual Shakespeare work) and one miniseries (Park Chan-wook’s The Little Drummer Girl). Instead, 2019 is the year where Pugh wove together a unifying narrative over three otherwise unrelated movies, about young women searching for identity against the backdrop of family matters.

Take Little Women, the film that best fits this outline as an individual entry in Pugh’s filmography. As Amy, she stretches out her legs more so than the character does in the pages of Louis May Alcott’s novel: Where she’s typically thought of as a brat, vain and flighty, here she’s just brat-adjacent. Sure, she burns the novel of her sister Jo (Saoirse Ronan) out of spite. Sure, she draws caricatures of her teacher for her classmates to giggle over. But Amy has dreams and aspirations. She wants to travel across Europe, live in Paris, and blossom into the greatest painter the world has ever known. Hard as it may be to know oneself when surrounded by three siblings, Amy has a firm grasp on who she wants to be, and as the movie leads her—and its viewers—toward a full realization of her personhood, it inevitably calls her back home to deal with death in the family.

Even this isn’t so bad. As Midsommar suggests, there’s a privilege in having a home to be called back to, not to mention a family to do the calling. In that film, college student Dani isn’t doing well. Her own sister, Terri (Klaudia Csányi), has just taken her life and the lives of their parents, too. So she latches onto her boyfriend, Christian (Jack Raynor), who would rather she not latch onto him, so much so that he neglects to tell her about the trip to Hälsingland he and his bros have planned out. True to the film’s title, they’re going to a midsummer shindig in the middle of Nowhere, Sweden. Dani ends up tagging along against Christian’s wishes—he’s the closest thing to family she has left. But as Midsommar trundles ahead, oddities give way to atrocities beneath the unfaltering Swedish sun and Dani unwittingly joins a new family—the Hårga cult.

Amy is blessed where Dani is cursed: Comparatively, she has almost too much family. But both of them embark on journeys across the ocean to escape from the state of their respective lives, even if Amy’s life is considerably sunnier than Dani’s, and even though they’re looking for different things.

Fighting with My Family shares in common the journey motif found in Pugh’s other two roles, as well as, at least in Amy’s case, the pursuit of self-agency. As Paige Knight, the daughter of English pro-wrestling parents and the youngest wrestler to hold the WWE Divas title, she also travels abroad to fulfill her own ambitions while also carrying the burden of her family’s expectations. Her father, Ricky (Nick Frost), and her mother, Julia (Lena Headey), run their own wrestling promotion on the British independent wrestling circuit. Neither of them know success at the level of the WWE. Once Paige dips her toes in those waters, Ricky and Julia immediately start hocking shoddy Paige merch, parlaying the promise of her future success into monetary gains for themselves. She’s their ticket to stardom.

That makes Ricky and Julia sound frankly awful, and, yes, it’s pretty crummy to bank on your kids’ likeness to make a buck even before the kid makes one. But they mean well. Times aren’t exactly dire in the Knight household, but they’re certainly tight. Paige carries their pride on her shoulders as the only Knight child accepted by the WWE. (Her brother tries out, too, but fails.) The onus to take care of the family thus falls on Paige. She’s the one with the best shot of achieving status, which puts her in good company with Amy, described as the only “sane” member of the March clan by her harridan aunt (Meryl Streep): Amy is best positioned to marry well and use her marriage to provide for her modestly supported family, a concept she struggles with and ultimately rejects. (True, she marries Laurie, but theirs is a marriage based on love over financial giddyup.)

Pugh deftly threads the needle from one role to the others. She doesn’t give the same performance in each, but she does look under the hood for similar sentiments: The desire to leave home and carve out one’s niche in the world, the push-pull dynamic of familial bonds. Pugh calibrates her work to suit the requirements of each film, going broadly comic for Fighting with My Family, lugubrious for Midsommar, and multilayered for Little Women, the most refined of the three and by far the most demanding, as there she must vault from childish to adult, impulsive to wise, unassured to self-governing, hitting notes in the key of comedy and period drama sometimes within the same scene. Pugh makes it look easy.

To anyone who saw her in Lady Macbeth, it’s not a surprise to see Pugh’s talent bloom. It is, however, awesome to see that talent applied so equally across such a varied range of projects in the span of a single year. That’s better proof of her acting eminence than one individual performance alone can provide.

Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.

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