Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth has been called many things, from an “anti-mother” to a witch, yet few can deny the powerful presence that she has in the writer’s Scottish play. Director William Oldroyd’s film might not necessarily follow the Bard’s plotting, nor strictly feature the vengeful queen herself, but it certainly captures the essence of the character.
Partly inspired by the novel Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District by Nikolai Leskov, screenwriter Alice Birch shifts the setting to rural England in 1865. Even so, Birch keeps every drop of the commentary on the subordinate role women were expected to have in this period. Katherine (Florence Pugh) is sold into a loveless marriage to the much older landowner Alexander (Paul Hilton). During his frequent absences, she begins a passionate affair with estate worker Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), unleashing a powerful drive that is difficult to put back in the bottle.
If anywhere was going to physically represent the repression of a person, it’s the gloomy landscapes of Northumberland. Recalling the bleakness of Wuthering Heights, the long and wind-chilled moments of the first act are a study in arrested development and sexual frustration. The film cuts loose as Katherine does, with a key sequence of the Lady discovering what ‘the help’ get up to marking a turning point for the narrative. Passionate sex is juxtaposed with stately tea with the vicar, and she becomes capable of doling out cruelty with equal relish.
Pugh gives an award-worthy performance as someone who necessarily transitions seamlessly from subjugated to empowered and murderous. We follow her through one event after the other in a society built to keep her down, including the sudden appearance of one of Alexander’s illegitimate children that she becomes responsible for. At the start of the film, she is made to face a wall while her husband masturbates. Later, we see her defiantly humping her lover in front of her husband. Pugh’s final character turn, one purely enacted to save her own position, is as chilling as it is wickedly delightful.
Viewers will, and probably should, feel appalled at some of the actions of the leads, but it’s also difficult to not secretly cheer Katherine on. For even though this could be loosely categorised as a costume drama, and one that has an undeniable austerity and measured coldness, it is just as worthwhile to see this as a compact and atmospheric horror film. Katherine is the unstoppable ‘final girl’ and while see is capable of devastating violence, it is all in self-defence against a soul-killing society.