Based on Nikolai Leskov’s novella Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (and adapted by Alice Birch), Lady Macbeth confirms something that probably wasn’t that difficult to figure out: Things were pretty awful for British women in the mid-1800s. Newcomer Florence Pugh plays Katherine, a young woman sold into marriage to a man (Paul Hilton) who is not only much older than she is but also is clearly not interested in getting to know her, let alone falling in love with her. Effectively forbidden from even leaving the manor, Katherine feels like a prisoner with zero prospects for reprieve.
When her husband goes away, supposedly on business, she is left in the cold company of her father-in-law (Christopher Fairbank), who is even crueler than her husband. But when it becomes clear that her husband is actually missing, the father-in-law goes away in search of his son, leaving Katherine alone with the servants for the first time. She immediately begins walking the grounds, getting as much fresh air as possible. One day she catches several of the male servants engaged in some fairly adult games with Anna (Naomi Ackie), Katherine’s primary lady-in-waiting. But rather than scold the group (she gives it a half-hearted attempt), Katherine seems intrigued by one strapping, brazen young man, Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), and the two start a fairly torrid and out-in-the-open affair, thinking that her husband was never coming home. Don’t these people ever read a romance novel?
Lady Macbeth is not the type of love story that features a core relationship worthy of admiration. These two are so crazed by lust, they lash out at anything that threatens their happiness. A bit of poison here, a unprovoked beating there, and even an unspeakable act that works as the film’s emotional and moral low point, each act as a deplorable incident outdoing the one before it. At the center of it all is Pugh’s force-of-nature performance that emanates primarily from her eyes, since the rest of her is almost incapable of moving, having been strapped in impossibly tight corsets. Director William Okdroyd (marking his feature debut after years in the theater) takes particular care to underscore each large and small indignity that Katherine faces, leading up to her lowering her guard with the only man in her small universe who shows her any affection.
But make no mistake, despite her lashing out at those around her, we are still meant to clearly understand that these were things she was driven to do. Once she gets a taste of real happiness, she won’t retreat into a life of solitude again. The harsh lighting and steely camerawork by cinematographer Ari Wegner in the film’s first half give way to lush fields and warmer tones once Katherine is transformed into a woman whose pleasure centers have had their barriers blown off by a cannonball. Lady Macbeth is understated and devastating in a single breath, and I’m certain we’ll be seeing a great deal more of Florence Pugh in the years to come.
The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.