Despite the title, this Lady Macbeth isn’t exactly the bloodthirsty queen of Shakespeare’s drama.
Think D.H. Lawrence meets the Bard, and you’re closer to the subject matter and theme of the 2016 British film by first-time feature director William Oldroyd. It showcases 19-year-old Florence Pugh’s chilling and astonishing performance as the title character.
To set the pedigree straight, the film is based on Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 novel which inspired Shostakovich to create a musical adaptation. In 1962, Polish great Andrzej Wajda did his own film adaptation, Siberian Lady Macbeth. Relocated to a remote farmland in mid-Victorian England by screenwriter Alice Birch, the setting, mood and tone of the new film reflect the glumness and grimness of the Russian original.
The resultant Lady Macbeth is fascinating and foreboding. Austerity rather than frippery is a key element of this costume drama. The opening scene is a close-up of young Katherine in a wedding dress, singing a hymn as she furtively glances to her right, apparently at her husband. We don’t see him … yet.
We next see her in a spare bedchamber where Anna, the black maid (Naomi Ackie), helps arrange her nightgown.
Her husband Alexander (Paul Hilton), an older man, enters the room, asks if she’s warm and instructs her to stay inside during the day. Then he tells her to take off her nightdress—not to fulfill his marital duties, it seems, since he gets in bed, and turns away from her. She stands there looking at him … and her future.
Only then do we see the film’s title, yet there’s no mention of crew and cast.
In short order, we learn Katherine has been bought by Alexander’s stern, remorseless and intimidating father Boris (Christopher Fairbank), to produce an heir for the family land and fortune. No one else is excited about this. In fact, Alexander promptly absents himself from the household, exiting with his father, on ‘business.’
Left alone, with no other company than the timid, fearful Anna, Katherine begins to expand the limits of her confines, wandering the fields and testing the waters, so to speak. She encounters the groomsman Sebastian (musician-turned-actor Cosmo Jarvis), when she rescues terrified young servant Anna from being brutalized by him and his comrades.
To Anna’s later dismay, Katherine is flagrant in her disregard for propriety on the home front until Boris returns—his presence threatens to quash her ardor. Boris denounces her, warning that she should be procreating with his son instead of the hired help.
Katherine resorts to strategies worthy of the Scottish queen herself. So Boris dies; keep count, now—One.
Katherine plays up the mournful daughter-in-law role convincingly enough for neighbors and the local priest, but her husband is nobody’s fool. He detested his father nearly as much as Katherine did, and avoids the old man’s funeral. He shows up later, unsuspected and unannounced, to confront his wife and her lover.
Again Katherine proves herself as damned and bloody as that other Lady M, this time to the surprise of the shocked groomsman. Alexander bites the dust—Two. She then throws herself even more into the illicit liaison, as her heights of passion soar while his ebb. It gets even more sticky when the mother of Alexander’s dead mistress appears, dragging the grandchild and designated ward of the absent—or, more precisely, late—Alexander.
Lady Macbeth was a star-making role for Florence Pugh, whose most notable appearance so far had been opposite Maisie Williams in The Falling (’14), a critically acclaimed but rarely seen drama about some mysterious activities at a girls’ school. The talented actress has since appeared in works as diverse as Malevolent (horror), The Commuter (thriller) and BBC’s take on King Lear, as Cordelia to Anthony Hopkins’ flawless Lear.
Next year, she’ll be Amy March in Greta Gerwig’s version of Little Women, along with Saoirse Ronan, Timothée Chalamet, Emma Watson and Meryl Streep.
Lady Macbeth, an early indicator of this talented actor’s future, is impressive on its own merits as well.