The Wild Wisdom of Florence Pugh

The young star of 'Lady Macbeth' and 'Little Women' already proves herself to be an authority on representing complex womanhood.
Fighting With My Family Florence Pugh

Welcome to Filmographiesa column for completists. Every edition brings a working actor’s resumé into focus as we learn about what makes them so compelling. In this entry, we spotlight the filmography of Florence Pugh.

Prestige and fame came at Florence Pugh fast. The charismatic fresh-faced Brit catapulted to stardom – even that of the Academy Award-nominated variety – in almost no time at all. Unlike some of her contemporaries, Pugh was immediately offered the chance to demonstrate an intoxicatingly shrewd ingenuity in her very first features. However, the actress’s sheer authenticity and individuality come from her intricate ability to balance the necessary heartful wisdom of such roles with an almost childlike inner wonderment. Our deep dive into Pugh’s stirring resumé readily examines her meteoric rise within the entertainment industry, in which “poignant” doesn’t even begin to describe the full breadth of her talent.

The Falling (2014)

Carol Morley’s meditative mystery The Falling marks Pugh’s first professional acting credit. Although it never fully veers into the territory of outright horror, this eerie film tells an abstruse and ponderous coming-of-age story set within the confines of an all-girls institution in the late 1960s. Pugh stars as Abbie, a disobedient, mischievous student met with abrupt tragedy, an occurrence that irreparably changes the status quo of classmates and teachers alike.

The character’s mystique goes hand-in-hand with the enigmatic countenance of a then-unknown Pugh, especially when the actress expertly shares scenes with familiar faces like Game of Thrones’ Maisie Williams and British acting mainstay Maxine Peake.

That said, Pugh’s remarkable naturalism as a performer speaks for itself. Her deep, earthy voice, rich laughter, and easygoing sisterly affection towards her onscreen schoolmates effortlessly enshrine Abbie in our minds and hearts. Although she is the first among her peers to chase the supposed tenets of womanhood, the warmth that Pugh lends to such worldliness makes Abbie seem like everyone’s lovably daring big sister all the same.

Abbie’s impulsive, emotionally-driven appetite for life sets a ghostly undertone for the rest of The Falling. Where the movie holds back on tapping into the full potential of such voracity, we as an audience see it sparkle in Pugh’s hungry gaze nonetheless.

Paradise Lost? (2015)

Pugh’s next adventure into abstract storytelling can be found in an artsy retelling of the John Milton poem of the same name. Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard’s three-part short film series Paradise Lost? sees Pugh and her real-life brother Toby Sebastian respectively play the stars of the Biblical creation myth – Eve and Adam – whose cyclical, repetitive lifestyle is threatened by knowledge of the outside provided by Satan (Sean Harris).

Pugh drives the dangerous curiosity curdling in the underbelly of these metaphysical shorts, quickly establishing Eve’s thirst for change with wide-eyed fascination. Forsyth and Pollard’s utilization of space and atmosphere juxtaposes her youthful abandon as she demands freedom. Amid the misty, dreamy surroundings of the Barbican Estate – where Milton himself was laid to rest – Pugh commands our attention by perfectly encapsulating both the treachery and promise of Eve’s temptation and her part in this intertextual experimental art piece cannot be understated.

Lady Macbeth (2016)

Pugh ups the ante of her penchant for duality in William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth. The dire, ruinous drama relies entirely on her stellar central performance as Katherine Lester, a young woman who finds herself trapped in a passionless marriage to a man many years her senior.

The film – which was adapted from the eponymous Russian novella by Nikolai Leskov – introduces an easily sympathetic leading lady whose plight feels unnervingly relatable. Katherine does her best to play the part of a dutiful wife at the beginning, her stiff diminutive frame adorning the cold, empty spaces of her husband’s estate with polite rigidity. Eventually, her deeper, secretive desires are betrayed by a particularly defiant gaze that cuts through her otherwise stoic general countenance.

Despite the empathy that we’re encouraged to have for Katherine’s repressive circumstances, the contradictory reality of her calculated coyness showcases a distinct lack of care – and even disdain – for others. Her identity as a woman comes with privileges that she unabashedly abuses, while any semblance of remorse for her less-than-savory actions ultimately remains a mystery. All of this is tied up – viselike – in her own conditional love and an intense fear of defeat.

On a technical level, Lady Macbeth already boasts phenomenal writing and direction that abominably distorts the familiar beats of a tried-and-true narrative about women’s agency. However, it is Pugh who truly keeps us invested even as Katherine unveils the appalling depths of her dark side. Collecting antithetical characteristics and inventing an intricate, sinister portrayal, she ensures that Katherine’s descent into deviance and depravity constantly surprises, infuriates, and despairs in chillingly resonant ways.

Marcella (2016)

The period dramas at the start of Pugh’s career would soon make way for more modern-day fare, even if substantial roles in this arena were initially lacking. Her breakthrough in Lady Macbeth was supplemented by a minor role in the ITV detective series Marcella. During the show’s first season, Pugh plays Cara, a sex worker with an independent go-getting spirit who finds herself in the crosshairs of a serial killer.

Although Cara seems solely focused on keeping herself and her roommate afloat, she lives by a nonconformist moralistic code that highlights the displacement of a young woman on the fringes of society. Consequently, the role allows Pugh to explore the hustle of day-to-day life in a comparably grittier landscape than we’re used to seeing her in. Unfortunately, the blow of Cara’s ill fate shortens the amount of time Pugh has to really unpack the character’s full potential.

The Commuter (2018)

Pugh’s supporting role in the Liam Neeson action thriller The Commuter was the first movie to usher in a propitious 2018 for the actress. She finds herself sharing the spotlight with an ensemble of impressive onscreen talents although – as can be expected from a Neeson headliner directed by Jaume Collet-Serra – this superficial popcorn flick isn’t necessarily about much else other than the stunt-heavy shenanigans undertaken by its star.

The movie tracks an ex-cop who inadvertently becomes embroiled in a murder plot on his train commute home. Said protagonist angrily stalks every carriage, meeting a cast of characters in search of his supposed target, including the pierced, pink-haired, and plucky young woman played by Pugh.

Armed with few lines and minimal screentime, the actress is largely delegated to behave somewhat suspiciously for the duration of the movie. At the very least, Pugh imbues her character with persistent likability in spite of this surface-level conflict. The clear-cut sermonic approach of the overall story does her no favors, though.

King Lear (2018)

But Pugh doesn’t actually need to be onscreen for all that long to turn in a breathtaking, scene-stealing performance. In Richard Eyre’s modern reimagining of William Shakespeare’s King Lear, she steps into the shoes of the small but vital role of Cordelia, the youngest daughter of the narrative’s eponymous lead.

This version of the iconic play puts a dystopian spin on the renowned tragedy. Set in an alternate universe, the sovereign King Lear (Anthony Hopkins) rules over a militarized England, soon be divided among his three daughters. Whether or not they receive a lofty endowment is purely based on how much each woman professes to love their father, even if such affectations are nothing but a sham.

But when young, blunt Cordelia wants no part of her sisters’ charades, saying only that she “love[s] your majesty according to my bond, no more, no less,” Lear disinherits and banishes her in a rage. She later reappears during a poignant moment of realization for Lear, demonstrating the true extent of her loyalty to him.

Regardless of decades of King Lear adaptations – and almost a dozen Cordelias before her – Pugh dons this pivotal role with unique confronting acumen. In contrast to co-stars Emma Thompson and Emily Watson – who portray Lear’s older daughters – Pugh’s Cordelia is a vision of comparable youth.

Such obstinate independence does not cancel out Cordelia’s open-heartedness either, which Pugh outstandingly embodies in her scenes with Hopkins. Between them, essential Lear-Cordelia kinship is depicted with utmost emotional honesty. Pugh exploits a sense of juvenile defiance, starkly setting her apart from the rest of this well-established cast.

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Sheryl Oh: Sheryl Oh often finds herself fascinated (and let's be real, a little obsessed) with actors and their onscreen accomplishments, developing Film School Rejects' Filmographies column as a passion project. She's not very good at Twitter but find her at @sherhorowitz anyway. (She/Her)