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.
Oldroyd pays close attention to the bleakness of the environment and the total lack of concern everyone displays in Katherine’s mental well-being. There’s barely any plot at all for a while, just quiet, considered shots of Pugh’s face taking everything in. But then, well, things certainly begin to happen. Katherine’s relationships with the manor’s servants, including the shy Anna (Naomi Ackie) and the ruggedly handsome Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), begin to evolve in interesting ways, while her marriage to Alexander, who eventually returns, is brought to a sudden and shocking halt.
Much of the darkness that follows—and be warned, Lady Macbeth is very dark indeed (not so much in terms of graphic content, but just the tragic story arc)—rests on Pugh’s shoulders. I had never heard of her, but there’s no question this film marks the emergence of a major talent, the kind of intense screen presence that seems ripped from a 1930s costume drama. She believably portrays Katherine’s transformation from innocent bride to calculating lady of the house to something much more disturbing—without her, the movie would feel ludicrously melodramatic.
But Oldroyd and Birch are also working to make more unusual points about the stuffy genre they’re within. This isn’t just a tale of Alexander and Boris stifling a young woman until she snaps. Almost all of the house’s servants are played by actors of color, unusual for a British period drama, and so much of the chaos that ensues in Lady Macbeth ends up disrupting their lives. Though the story is about Katherine, the film is careful to depict the wider consequences of her actions, keeping Lady Macbeth from being too simple a narrative of a mistreated bride overthrowing her patriarchal tormentors.
Which gets to what I found fascinating most about Lady Macbeth: Oldroyd has obvious sympathy for his subject, even as she commits unforgivable acts, but that doesn’t mean the film is arguing for Katherine. It’s interested in trying to understand an antiquated class system that propped up so much unspoken violence, domestic abuse, and oppression, for so long. The novel and opera of Lady Macbeth have a moralizing bent to them, with an ending that suggests a more straightforward retribution for Katherine’s crimes. Oldroyd’s movie anticipates tragedy from the outset and follows it to a fitting (if horrifying) conclusion that’s burned into my memory—making Lady Macbeth one of the best, and most surprising, films of the year.