Based not on Shakespeare’s play but on Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 novel “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” (previously adapted for the screen by Andrzej Wajda in 1962 and the basis of the 1934 opera that brought official Soviet condemnation on Shostakovich), William Oldroyd’s debut feature is an uncompromising portrait of ruthlessness driven by unbridled passion. Relocated by screenwriter Alice Birch to Victorian-era Northumbria, the tale of an unhappily married young woman who will apparently resort to any means to free herself from the shackles imposed by her stern father-in-law and peremptory husband is presented in harsh, unforgiving terms that some viewers will find hard to take, but it’s undeniably powerful stuff.
In a breakthrough performance Florence Pugh stars as Katherine, a young woman virtually sold into an arranged marriage to Alexander (Paul Hilton), the heavy-drinking, boorish son of surly mining magnate Boris (Christopher Fairbank). Alexander proves unwilling, or unable, to perform his husbandly duties, and Boris blames Katherine, restricting her freedom as strenuously as the girdle strapped onto her each morning by her maid Anna (Naomi Ackie) does her body. It’s little wonder that when both men are called away on business, she falls without much resistance into the arms of the crude but virile new groomsman Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis).
Their unseemly affair does not go unnoticed, of course, and the separate returns of Boris and Alexander, each of whom threatens to make her life even more like incarceration than it had previously been, lead Katherine to take drastic action against them both. Now she and Sebastian can parade their relationship openly, without any further pretense. Unfortunately, Alexander has left behind a surprise that will threaten their blissful show of domesticity and result in an act of violence that will ultimately set them against one another.
Pugh commands the screen throughout, mostly through subtle nuance rather than histrionic outbursts—except, of course, in those instances in which Katherine engages in sexual abandon with Sebastian, whom Jarvis plays with an appropriately rough edge. Hilton and Fairbank prove entirely capable of placing Boris and Alexander among the most odious examples of male oppression ever committed to celluloid, while Ackie matches Pugh in revealing understatement, until the narrative forces her to extremis in the final reel. There are also fine turns from Golda Rosheuvel and Anton Palmer in the film’s latter stages. Technically the film belies its small budget through the canny use of locations—rough exteriors and gloomy interiors—that are given an appropriately dank look by cinematographer Ari Wegner, and Nick Emerson’s editing helps maintain the brooding atmosphere.
It must be emphasized that this is a dark, nasty tale in which very little light is allowed to penetrate the shadows of malignancy that permeate it. (A bit of comic relief is, however, provided by the house cat, which Oldroyd uses for a few doses of gallows humor.) There are violent sequences that will be hard to shake off—the first staged almost offhandedly, a second brutally, and a third presented quietly from a distance in a way that makes the horror of the deed all the more shocking. There is also a quick insert that will revolt squeamish viewers, a shot that one might literally describe as the cinematic equivalent of flogging a dead horse.
So “Lady Macbeth” will antagonize, even anger, some viewers, but it represents a bold, unsettling transposition of Leskov’s grim take on a Shakespearean motif—a promising debut for its director and a stunning breakthrough for its star.