In 1865 rural England, seventeen year-old Katherine (Florence Pugh) is wed to forty year-old Alexander (Paul Hilton, "London Road") in a marriage arranged by his father, mine owner Boris (Christopher Fairbank, "Guardians of the Galaxy"). The willing young woman is shunned by her husband, who demands she stay inside their large yet austere estate. But when Alexander is sent off to look into an explosion and Boris travels to London, Katherine indulges her wanderlust and lust of a different kind explodes when she meets new groomsman Sebastian (singer-songwriter Cosmo Jarvis). Their affair emboldens Katherine, but her rebellion takes a murderous turn in "Lady Macbeth."
Before you start wondering what happened to the damned spot, note that this story has nothing to do with Shakespeare, instead a loose adaptation by Alice Birch of Nikolai Leskov's 19th century novel 'Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District.' Katherine Lester is a complex character, something of a cross between "Leave Her to Heaven's" Gene Tierney and "Wuthering Height's" Catherine. We feel for her unfortunate, repressive marriage, but Katherine's taste of freedom makes her stop at nothing to retain it. Florence Pugh is mesmerizing as the defiant young woman who uses her wiles to get what she wants.
We meet Katherine during her wedding ceremony, her face the only one we see. Her new ladies maid, Anna (Naomi Ackie), prepares her for her wedding night, asking if she's nervous. 'No,' replies Katherine and we believe her. Alexander enters, asking if she's cold, then ordering her to take her nightdress off. He gazes at her and climbs into bed, facing away from her (later he'll ask her to turn towards the wall while he masturbates).
In his feature film debut, theater director William Oldroyd quickly communicates Katherine's degradation, isolation and boredom. She's dressed in corsets and hoops to sit on a settee all day in a room with handsome, solid furniture but no books or other forms of recreation. She's ignored during a dinner, so takes her leave only to be commanded to stay awake until her husband turns in, Boris blaming her for the lack of a grandchild. She was bought as a brood mare whose stud will not engage.
Alone as the mistress of the house, Katherine hears a woman's frightened screams and rushes to the outhouses where she finds Anna hoisted naked in a sling being weighed like a pig. She's commanding, ordering the woman down, demanding the men get back to work. Sebastian is the ringleader and Katherine takes note, smiling to herself when he later calls to her from across a field. When he arrives at her bedroom door, she resists, at first. Anna watches through a keyhole. Soon Father Peter (Cliff Burnett) arrives, suggesting she's been ill having not attended church, perhaps because of her wanderings about the countryside. Anna looks askance. The priest is abruptly dismissed.
When Lester Sr. returns, he's well informed of Katherine's misdeeds during his absence. Sebastian is beaten and locked in a stable. Emboldened, perhaps helped by the wine she's been freely consuming, Katherine demands his freedom. Anna takes the blame for the diminished wine stores. Katherine engineers Boris's death with Anna's full knowledge and the maid goes mute. Katherine receives mourners and no one's the wiser. Sebastian is installed as master of the house, dressed in Alexander's clothes. As the two lie in bed one evening, Alexander returns.
Oldroyd's beautifully crafted period film is a tale of sex and murder which grows increasingly horrific as it goes along, especially after Katherine fully takes control only to discover that there is another legitimate heir in the form of 7 year-old Teddy (Anton Palmer), a biracial child who moves into the estate with his grandmother Agnes (Golda Rosheuvel). We're made complicit on a slippery slope, the deaths of innocents (including the awful, botched killing of a horse) revealing Katherine's true nature. Oldroyd and his screenwriter serve up a prison of their own making for Katherine, a delicious visual which comments upon an earlier one.
Robin gives "Lady Macbeth" a B.
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