It’s best to know as little as possible about Lady Macbeth going in. It took me utterly by surprise—a costume drama unafraid of exploring the oppression and brutality at the heart of its genre, featuring a star turn from a largely unknown actress. Though filled with compassion for its heroine, the film is nonetheless deeply macabre, methodically building up to every menacing story twist and yet managing to make each land like a gut-punch. The only thing that’s important to note going in is that this is no Shakespeare adaptation.
William Oldroyd’s film (which was scripted by Alice Birch, with both making their feature debuts) is in fact a retelling of Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 novella Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, which was subsequently turned into a 1934 opera by Dmitri Shostakovich. Oldroyd and Birch have made significant changes to their source material, first of all by transposing the action to rural England. But the thrust of the story remains the same and is indeed indebted to Shakespeare’s famed anti-heroine’s slow, grimly determined journey into villainy.
Katherine (Florence Pugh, in only her second film appearance after her role in the British indie The Falling) is a new bride to a local lord, an older man named Alexander (Paul Hilton). In the film’s nearly wordless opening minutes, Oldroyd’s static camera looks on impassively as Katherine’s spirit is quickly deadened. Alexander is much older than her and seems completely uninterested in fulfilling his marital duties, only taking a bride to satisfy his imperious father Boris (Christopher Fairbank). Quickly enough, both men leave the estate, commanding Katherine to remain inside its sparsely furnished rooms lest she catch a cold outdoors.