“Are you cold?” “No”. “Are you nervous?” “No”. From these first words it is clear that the new Mrs Lester will not be easily worn down. Based on the 1865 Russian novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, this is a chilling account of the consequences of challenging a woman’s prerogative.
Living in an unloving and unconsummated marriage to an oppressive but pathetic man of wealth in the 19th century, Florence Pugh’s young but certainly not naïve Katherine Lester is left to her own devices when he and her father-in-law are called away. In their absence, she begins an affair with rough-hewn groom Sebastian, initiated with a sexual encounter charged with aggression.
Their attraction is dark and unnerving, with the rugged flavour of Wuthering Heights and the malevolence of Lady Macbeth herself, promising duly delivered depravity. No matter how low she must sink, no matter how many people must suffer, it becomes clear from the outset that Katherine is a woman who will let nothing get in her way. She carries out her misdeeds with a coolness which must be admired, no matter how awful her offences; she is a woman who feels suffocated by the world, and so suffocates it right back.
But what is truly impressive about this film is not the scandal, but the intriguingly complex contrasts which run through the narrative created by up-and-coming director William Oldroyd and playwright Alice Birch. Indeed, there is a seemingly endless stream: between man and woman, wickedness and virtue, upper and lower class, even in terms of race.
A loud sex scene cuts to tea with the vicar; Katherine commits murder, then piously holds the funeral; a confrontation with white farmhands is revealed to be over the assault and humiliation of a black maid, who repeatedly takes the brunt of abuse throughout the film, eventually rendering her mute.
Lady Macbeth is a story of oppression and the great lengths a person will go to overcome it, shown through the eyes of perhaps one of the most captivating murderesses to grace our screens in recent years.
Image: Lorenzo Gaudenzi
All Films reviewed at Cineworld, Edinburgh