Lady Macbeth (2017, directed by William Oldroyd) looks, on the surface, like a period costume drama, but turns out to be a psychological horror replete with sex, murder, and the utmost cruelty.
The story takes place in 1865 in rural England, and begins with young Katherine (Florence Pugh) marrying older Alexander Lester (Paul Hilton). One gets the feeling it is not a joyous union of love, which is further proven by her husband’s cold and resentful treatment of her. He can’t or won’t consummate the marriage, expects her to stay inside the house at all times, and is generally derisive and dismissive. Even worse is her husband’s father Boris (Christopher Fairbank) who rules the roost, and is actually the one who “bought” Katherine to marry his son and expects her to bear him an heir. It’s clear father and son cannot stand each other.
Katherine is presented as a sympathetic figure, and we buy right into it, witnessing her near suffocating boredom and isolation. It’s clear early on that she’s tough and intelligent, but there’s also something cold about her as well. Her maid Anna (Naomi Ackie), timid and subservient, is not someone she chooses to bond with, preferring to snap and condescend instead.
Finally, her husband leaves the estate, apparently on business, and his father leaves not long after, leaving Katherine gloriously alone. She revels in this newfound freedom, taking long walks outside on the moors, corset-less, long hair unbound, answering to no man.
But then she meets another man: Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), the new groomsman. They meet under strange and disturbing circumstances–he and the other men have strung up the housemaid Anna in some cruel game, teasing and tormenting her. Katherine confronts the men and demand they let her down, not out of any concern for Anna but simply to regain control of the men and assert her authority. The fact that she feels an attraction to this man, and shows no concern for Anna’s welfare whatsoever, hints that there is something terribly wrong with Katherine, a selfishness of sociopathic proportions.
She and Sebastian start up a passionate affair which quickly turns obsessive. They have their fun, but inevitably her father-in-law returns, and her lover is banished back to the stables. This does not sit well with Katherine, and it’s at this point in the film when events begin to spiral out of control.
Lady Macbeth is based on Nicolai Leskov’s Russian novella “Lady Macbeth of Mtensk”, which illustrates the ways in which a woman’s spirit could be crushed in the 19th century. Apparently its repressive ways could turn a woman into a monster, for that’s what Katherine becomes: a creature not willing to let anything or anyone get in the way of what she wants. Having tasted freedom long denied and forbidden, she’s not willing to give it up, and will pay for it in blood.
Florence Pugh, at only 21 and in her second film role, is impressive in bringing Katherine’s cold and calculating rage to life. The starkness of the film (there is no score, only the sound of Katherine’s footsteps echoing off the floors of the house) brings Katherine into greater relief; she is the vicious beating heart of the story, one that thumps with I want, I want, I will, I will.