With a script cleverly adapted and Anglicised by writer Alice Birch from Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk, Shakespeare’s famed character is nowhere to be found in this tale of arranged marriage spiralling into adultery and murder.
Treated as a commodity by the men controlling her life, beautiful teenager Katherine (Florence Pugh) has been sold by her father, along with a piece of land, to a colliery-owning family headed by Boris (Christopher Fairbank). She is forced to marry Boris’s morose, middle-aged son, Alexander (Paul Hilton).
Instructed by her husband and father-in-law to remain indoors, Katherine is bored and frustrated until both Boris and Alexander are called away on business. Finally set free from the stark manor to roam the moors, she crosses paths with groomsman Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis) and experiences the unfamiliar frisson of sexual attraction.
Soon the two are swept away with passion but this film is far from mere bodice-ripping cliché. Each plot twist exposes the gradual corruption of the characters as Katherine goes to increasingly cold-blooded extremes to protect her blossoming sexual freedom.
This is a brilliant character study of abuse and repression gradually transforming a victim into an oppressor, and Pugh is astounding as the highly complex Katherine, given the sparseness of dialogue. The actress manages convey her character’s growing self-possession in a way that is sympathetic even as her transgressions deepen and darken in the name of freedom.
In addition to Katherine’s moral corruption, other equally significant themes of race and class play out. Sebastian, the lover, and housemaid Anna (Naomi Ackie) are black, and the presence of these characters illuminates both the class-based and racial prejudices of the white gentry.
This film is far more than narratively compelling. The absence of score and visual aesthetic all create an uncannily stark and absorbing atmosphere.
Jacqueline Abrahams’ production design cleverly steers away from the traditional opulence of costume drama toward a cold and austere puritanism. Ari Wegner’s cinematography lends the film a clean, crisp atmosphere that also sets it apart from conventional period dramas, as does costume designer Holly Waddington’s brilliant decision to recycle Katherine’s few dresses throughout the film, which adds to the air of pared-back grandeur.
This is a masterful feature debut by both director Oldroyd and leading actor Pugh. Lady Macbeth is a stark, gripping and entirely contemporary Victorian tragedy that you will be thinking about long after viewing.
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