Director William Oldroyd’s adaptation of Nikolai Leskov’s novel Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, simply titled Lady Macbeth, is quite the work of cinema, twisting and turning the audience in a wild variety of directions over the course of 90 minutes. Each and every time you think you have a handle on where Lady Macbeth is going, Oldroyd and screenwriter Alice Birch pull the rug out from underneath you, leaving aghast at the depths of this startling tale which marks a major breakout role for its star Florence Pugh.
In 19th century England, Katherine (Pugh) has just been sold into a marriage to Alexander (Paul Hilton), a man twice her age with little interest in the woman he’s just wed in a marriage arranged by his controlling and domineering father Boris (Christopher Fairbanks). The daily needs of Katherine are tended to by her maid, Anna (Naomi Ackie). When Alexander is called away on business and his father soon to follow, Katherine is left alone in the expansive, secluded estate.
These early scenes present Lady Macbeth as a quiet tale of patriarchal control over a young woman. The clothing that Katherine wears is picked out for her, and she must struggle to fit into her tight corsets in order to present herself to her uncaring husband and his cruel father. Once the men leave the house, she defies their orders, going outside and indulging in the home’s wine supplies. In the eyes of her father-in-law and husband, Katherine is nothing more than another piece of property acquired, meant to be molded and displayed as they desire with no concern for the young woman’s agency.
Then Lady Macbeth takes a shocking turn, as Katherine soon finds herself entering into a steamy affair with Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), a hired farm hand. The young Sebastian is at first presented as a boorish man. He’s introduced abusing Anna in some ghastly group display in the barn. Once she’s entered into this illicit romance, Katherine is emboldened in a way that leaves her father-in-law ashamed of her behavior, which is only made worse once he gets wind of her extramarital affair. From this point onward, Katherine will not be confined by the men that surround her, and the film then takes some incredibly dark, unexpected turns until its conclusion.
The film takes place in a single setting, and yet William Oldroyd and cinematographer Ari Wegner make the most of the lone location. They’re able to make the expansive estate that Katherine is confined to sometimes claustrophobic, especially in scenes where she’s forbidden from going outside. At the same time, they’re able to give us a glimpse to all that she yearns for, with jaunts across the woods and to the foggy hills on the outskirts of the estate. The austere setting and the sparse musical score by Dan Jones crafts maximum tension out of this 19th century tale of love and death.
Florence Pugh breaks out in a big way in Lady Macbeth. The young actress nails every aspect of the complex character of Katherine. She’s able to perfectly encapsulate the apprehension of a young woman pushed into a loveless marriage. Then the actress brings forth a sense of strength from within, a liberating defiance. Then as the film’s tone strongly shifts, Pugh brings forth an icy façade that gives one chills up their spine. The supporting cast, headlined by Cosmo Jarvis and Naomi Ackie, deliver strong work, though each find themselves turning in their best work when opposite Pugh; this is especially apparent as Naomi Ackie’s Anna finds herself becoming mute as the story finds its darker and grimmer aspects.
Lady Macbeth isn’t some Merchant Ivory period piece. This is a dark, often twisted tale of love and death that takes some perverse turns. William Oldroyd has crafted a brilliant work of cinema that left me rapt from the get-go. The settings, the costumes, the performances, and the cinematography all works in unison to bring a startling story and all of its more shocking moments to life. Lady Macbeth is symphony of horrible situations building to an unbelievable crescendo in one of the most intense movies of the year.