This richly atmospheric and sometimes discomfittingly dark drama from director William Oldroyd is drawn by screenwriter Julie Birch from Nikolai Leskov’s often-filmed 1865 novella (usually translated as Lady Macbeth Of The Mtsensk District) and transposed to freezing rural England.
The deceptive title of Lady Macbeth might mislead many into thinking that it has something to do with Shakespeare, but the anti-heroine here only bears a vague resemblance to the flawed and sympathetic Lady Macbeth of “damned spot” fame, as she’s actually a rather scary figure.
In 1865 we meet Katherine (Florence Pugh), a young woman sold into marriage as part of a land deal. It’s immediately obvious that her life thereon is going to be a loveless nightmare, especially as her emotionally remote husband Alexander (Paul Hilton) is a spiteful man-child with anger, alcohol and voyeurism issues. His father, the malevolently misogynist Boris (Christopher Fairbank as a character keeping his original name from the novella), scolds her for not fulfilling her wifely duties, and then both men leave to attend for separate business matters. She’s left alone in the big, cold house with only the hapless maid Anna (Naomi Ackie) to keep an eye on her.
When Katherine scolds some of the men who work the land as they cruelly taunt Anna, she finds herself much taken with Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), and there are glimmers of Madame Bovary (published before Leskov’s novella) and Lady Chatterley’s Lover (scandalously published well after) when he comes to her bedroom and they begin a passionate affair. After they start speaking about real love, with Sebastian treating Katherine as something more than a mere object or possession, Boris and, later, Alexander return knowing full well about the scandalous things that have been going on, and Katherine considers drastic action.
A pre-feminist tale taken to uneasy extremes, Oldroyd’s chilly epic might at first feel like a gloomy costume piece the likes of a Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre, but the characters here are far less noble, the path of true love is certainly more tormented, and Pugh’s formidable Katherine proves hardly a swooning damsel-in-distress-type as she rises against her humiliation and abuse. But, after all, what is a girl to do?
Rated MA. Lady Macbeth is in cinemas now