The titular character alluded to in Lady Macbeth isn’t much of a lady. William Oldroyd’s fierce directorial debut is a very loose riff on the Scottish play, the Shakespearean tragedy in which, in typical Bard fashion, many lives are lost. The body count in this film isn’t nearly as high, but considering the story involves a well-married young woman in 19th century England, even a single death is a shocking one.
The script, adapted by newcomer Alice Birch from a novella by Nikolai Leskov, doesn’t give you much information to start out with. It’s implied that it’s the wedding night of Katherine (Florence Pugh) and Alexander (Paul Hilton). Alexander is twice Katherine’s age, but between the candlelight and the then-teenage Katherine’s mature features and manner, they look more like peers than members of separate generations. Regardless, Katherine calls her husband “sir;” his odious father, Boris (Christopher Fairbank), bought her along with a piece of land for his son.
Katherine wins sympathy during her first tortuous days in the manor, having her hair roughly brushed and waist cinched in by Anna (Naomi Ackie), one of the black servants. (The fact that Ackie is black has been both somewhat controversial and considered a triumph of busting through period pieces’ typically lily-white casting.) Alexander orders her to stay indoors, even though she remarks that she likes fresh air. And whereas Alexander apparently can’t perform in bed, Katherine’s father-in-law blames her while his son is on a business trip. “And when your husband returns,” Boris says, “you can resume your duties with more vigor, madam.”
Boris also leaves on a trip at the same time as his son, and it doesn’t take long for Katherine to start doing as she pleases. She walks the windy moors, gets bitchy with the servants, and soon takes a lover, a groomsman named Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis). The young lady of the house grows steely, wiley, and ballsy—and though at times you’re put off by her sudden haughtiness, Katherine’s fuck-off attitude is mostly pretty great.
And then it turns unthinkable. The first victim drops dead while Katherine dines and tries to force Anna into conversation. Things don’t end well when Alexander returns and confronts Katherine about her affair—“I do not like owning a whore,” he says, along with “You’ve grown fatter!”—while Sebastian’s hiding in the room. At least, that is, until she brings him out in front of her husband and starts undressing him. Soon, she’s living with Sebastian openly, with him even trading his work clothes for threads more befitting a head of the house. When Katherine receives an unwelcome revelation in the form of a piece of Alexander’s past, it’s not surprising that she’s put off, especially because it threatens her relationship with Sebastian. She’ll do anything to keep him, even as he grows more distant toward her. So she takes care of the problem.
Pugh is terrifically fearless here; it will likely be her breakout role. And in creating this world, Oldroyd and Birch are ones to watch, too. The production is rather austere, with only three musical pieces perfectly placed in the film’s score and a small handful of sparsely decorated rooms serving as the set. Of course, though, Katherine’s dresses are opulent, making her bad behavior even more delicious. There’s no mistaking it: This isn’t Shakespeare. It’s Lady Macbeth.Lady Macbeth opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema, Landmark Bethesda Row, and Angelika Film Center.