“Lady Macbeth” reveals the essence of its plot in the title, but the dark twists of the thrilling narrative still manage to surprise. The feature-length debut of British theater director William Oldroyd suggests what might happen if Alfred Hitchcock directed “Wuthering Heights.” Adapting from Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 novel, Oldroyd and screenwriter Alice Birch transport the action to 19th century England and boil down its essence to the machinations of a driven young woman fiercely embodied by newcomer Florence Pugh. She begins the movie as an object of sympathy, and even as she grows more cunning and devious in her intentions, it’s easy to comprehend her psychotic drive.
As the story begins, young Katherine (Pugh) has been forced into a marriage with the heir to an industrial fortune (Paul Hilton) many years older than her. It doesn’t take long to establish her overwhelming discomfort: Smothered by corsets and frustrated by an insular life in a remote country home, she can’t even find sexual gratification in the bedroom with her apparently impotent husband, who barks orders at her when he chooses to acknowledge her at all. The story largely unfolds indoors, with spare lighting and a constant focus on Katherine’s dreary expression, which hints at the frustration simmering just beneath the surface.
And eventually, it explodes. When the man leaves town for weeks of business, Katherine gradually comes out of her shell, forming a erotic romance with grimy farmhand Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis, whose slick demeanor suggests a good candidate for a young James Bond). Meanwhile, house servant Anna (fellow newcomer Naomi Ackie in a devastatingly restrained performance) watches her master take control of the scenario while fearing the inevitable problems that await the household when its overlord returns. Audiences on the edge of their seats will be able to relate.
Katherine works her way through one blockade after another with a disquieting calm that makes Walter White look like Mr. Chips. At first, she dispatches of her menacing father-in-law, who’s tasked with getting the house in order and assumes a superiority over her that she barely tolerates. His son returns to find a newly confident woman unfazed by his domineering claims. As she continues her liaisons with Sebastian, even the object of her lust grows intimated by her relentless social climbing tactics. Pugh, her face frozen in a menacing scowl, singlehandedly carries the movie’s developing intensity. She’s at once a symbol of feminist empowerment and the nightmarish embodiment of its unmodulated rage. “No more bowing and not being who you deserve to be,” she announces to her household peers, but they seem to follow that directive more out of fear than a desire for liberation.
Despite the expert period dressing and committed performances, “Lady Macbeth” falls short of providing a sufficient backstory for its beleaguered characters. Katherine’s rebellion is so meticulous that it begs the question of how she conceived of her freedom to lash out in the first place. Likewise, the surly Sebastian never exists as much more than the hunk of meat that Katherine decides to lure into her reoriented kingdom.
But none of these limitations detract from the twisted thrill of the material, as Katherine hacks her way from a figure of persecution to self-made queen. Oldroyd’s chamber-drama approach to the material — the action remains within the confines of the home, with only a handful of exterior scenes — creates an unsettling claustrophobia that speaks to Katherine’s motives more than anything she says. Like the Shakespearean figure whose legacy hangs over the movie’s premise, she’s purely defined by her desire for power.
With no score and zero levity, “Lady Macbeth” maintains a constant atmospheric dread. Oldroyd crafts a masterful sense of uncertainty about how far Katherine will go to preserve her dominance. Facing societal pressures that would drive anyone crazy, she acts out within reason, but the specifics of her drive make it hard for anyone to join her revolt. In the horrific finale, a series of harrowing showdowns make it impossible to determine the moral compass of the story as it spins wildly between various characters. By the end, “Lady Macbeth” has less to say about the perils of being a woman in oppressive times than mania necessary for challenging them.
“Lady Macbeth” had its world premiere at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival. Roadside Attractions will release it in 2017.