In no way is the intense historical drama Lady Macbeth a romance. Sure, it’s set in the Victorian era of corsets and crinolines, with a plot that hinges on female suppression, sexual awakening, forbidden passion, and revenge. But there’s nothing remotely romantic about this vividly stark tale about a woman so completely warped by a monstrous society that she becomes a monster herself.
The story is based on the 1865 novel, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, by Russian author Nikolai Leskov. It’s adapted for the screen by Alice Birch for director William Oldroyd; they retain the mid-Victorian setting, but relocate the action to the forbidding, windswept moors of northern England. This turns out to be an appropriately rough-and-tumble landscape against which the filmmakers present an astonishingly poised, refined, and chilling gemstone of a performance by 20-year-old Florence Pugh in the central role. Pugh is in almost every scene—the story proceeds from her viewpoint—and she’ll have you biting your nails in dread as her character evolves into something wicked, indeed.
We know nothing about young Katherine (Pugh) as the story begins on her wedding night. Attempting to converse with her sour, taciturn, middle-aged new husband Alexander (Paul Hilton), she explains that she loves the outdoors and the fresh air—just one more subject on which they don’t agree as the somewhat baffling night progresses.
It turns out that Katherine has been “bought” for Alexander by his stern, elderly, Bible-spouting grotesque of a father, Boris (Christopher Fairbank), who lives with the couple in the forbidding stone fortress of their house. We know nothing of Katherine’s life before she was sold into marriage, but the particulars of her dreary wedded life are quickly apparent: with servants to run the household, she’s expected to sit primly in the parlor all day—indoors—until she fulfills her purpose of producing an heir.
This seems increasingly unlikely as Alexander soon disappears from the scene for parts unknown—leaving Katherine to suffer the disapproving scrutiny of her father-in-law alone. But when Boris is also called away, she revels in her freedom, taking long walks and exploring the estate of which she is nominal mistress. And on one such foray, she interrupts a party of groomsmen in the stables tormenting her black maid, Anna (Naomi Ackie).
Trying to exercise the authority of her position, Katherine is shocked by the bold response of the ringleader, Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis). Viewers start to get uncomfortable when Sebastian, despite his treatment of Anna, soon becomes Katherine’s lover, unlocking her unspent passions. Besides the improvement in her sex life, it’s clear that Katherine is even more thrilled by the audacity with which Sebastian flouts authority and dares to make his own rules—lessons she herself soon embraces.
It’s best not to reveal any more plot details, but as inferred from the title, no good can come from any of it. A conspiracy of lies and deceit, cover-ups, betrayal, and murder most gruesome—often extremely difficult to watch—are all involved. We watch in horror as Katherine sacrifices more and more of her psyche and her soul in these twisted schemes, with cold-hearted aplomb—even as her objective becomes ever more obscure.
Which is what makes this movie fascinating. It’s never about anything so prosaic as a woman fighting for the man she loves. Katherine’s steadily fragmenting relationship with Sebastian is never the point; instead, she’s fighting a suffocating social order in which she has no voice, no power, and no recourse. The grim irony is how horribly she loses herself in her desperation to claim her selfhood.
Everything about Oldroyd’s filmmaking contributes to the sense of bleak isolation, showing how completely Katherine is trapped in her world of vast, cloudy landscapes, and plain, empty interiors. Men spit out vicious invective, if they speak at all; otherwise, the silence is so profound, Oldroyd doesn’t even use a musical score—except for a few ominous chords, when things get extra dire. This is not a movie to take to your heart, but as a psychological character study, it’s both grueling and profound.
*** (our of four)
With Florence Pugh and Cosmo Jarvis. Written by Alice Birch. From the novel Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk by Nikolai Leskov. Directed by William Oldroyd. A Roadside Attractions release. Rated R. 89 minutes.