“Out, damned spot!” Lady Macbeth famously cries in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, tormented by the everlasting blood on her hands. Nonetheless, there’s no guilt to be found in Lady Macbeth, only a ruthless desire for the independence and power denied to women by men. Taking as its source material not of the Bard but, rather, Russian novelist Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 novel Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk (which was, naturally, inspired by its illustrious predecessor), theater director William Oldroyd’s feature debut is a period piece of pitiless feminist vengeance and liberation, one that roots itself in an austere nineteenth century England of drafty manor houses and misty moors, while steeping itself in gender and racial politics as relevant today as they were 150 years ago. It’s a Masterpiece Theater chamber piece reimagined as a caustic thriller, replete with more than a few similarities to Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled (mushrooms, anyone?), and one that heralds the arrival of a fearsome new star in 21-year-old Florence Pugh.
In only her second big-screen role, Pugh is all peaceful facades and barely suppressed rage as Katherine, a miserable young 1865 woman seemingly destined to live out her life suffering in the rural home of her much-older husband Alexander (Paul Hilton), to whom she was sold. The opening shot introduces Katherine at her nuptials, veiled and hesitant as her own singing is drowned out by that of the gathering’s men—an image of restraint, surprise, and distress that presages much of what’s to come. Cut to her wedding night, in which both her black maid Anna (Naomi Ackie) and Alexander ask her if she’s “cold,” followed by a disturbing sequence of domination and humiliation in which Alexander tells his wife that she’ll now spend all her time inside the house, then cuts her off by telling her to disrobe in front of him, and finally gets into bed, leaving her standing naked in the dark.
Alexander is bad but his father Boris (Christopher Fairbank) is worse, asserting autocratic control over his son and attempting to do likewise with Katherine, who in one instance he forces to stay awake after a dinner gathering—with Anna by her side—until Alexander can have his way with her (he can’t, though; he’s impotent in her company). When Boris departs for London and sends Alexander to deal with a distant business concern, Katherine finds herself adrift. Far from an innocent butterfly trapped under glass, however, she’s more akin to a viper waiting to (figuratively and literally) strike. One afternoon, she’s drawn by commotion to the barn, where she discovers a nude Anna tied up in a sack hanging from the ceiling, courtesy of a collection of horny farmhands led by the bold, mixed-race Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis). Katherine is appalled by this sight, and this man—and yet, she isn’t, and though she angrily rebuffs Sebastian’s initial physical advances, it’s not long before the two are engaged in a torrid tryst.
Growing more brazen with each subsequent screw, Katherine soon learns that her affair is not appreciated by Anna, who, in silent glances and too-rough bathtub scrubbings, expresses jealousy over her master’s acquisition of Sebastian’s affection. It’s also frowned upon (to say the least) by first Boris, and next Alexander, both of whom quickly come to realize that the woman they seek to control has a mind of her own. And not just a mind, but a ferocious, voracious animalistic spirit—born from her mother’s teachings about “outdoor things,” in tune with the violent wind and harsh landscape of this unforgiving region, and hungry for the pleasures of the flesh and the deep, wicked satisfaction of retribution that begets freedom. When Oldroyd segues from a close-up of a cat eating scraps off a dining table plate to the sight of Katherine riding Sebastian with unbridled desire, it’s clear that this young bride’s placid exterior conceals a feral soul.
No further details about Lady Macbeth’s plot will be spilled here, lest I ruin the thrill of its descent into ever more stunning—and ethically murky—depths. That plummet occurs not via cacophonous chaos but, instead, in meticulously staged sequences orchestrated in nerve-rattling silence. Save for three key moments embellished by ominous tonal swells, Oldroyd’s film generates dreadful suspense through eerie quiet punctuated by small, twinkling noises: china cups clinking against saucers; footsteps clacking on floorboards; heavy breathing as hands and mouths get to carnal work. That soundscape is married to visual compositions defined by fastidious symmetry, and by their refusal to look away from the horrors unfolding in this abode—as well as blossoming inside Katherine, her true nature coming to uninhibited, full-bodied life.
Oldroyd’s Spartan compositions are all the more rapturous for the way in which they subtly highlight his scenario’s thorny power dynamics. Whereas Katherine’s adversarial relationship with her male persecutors is made plain by the story’s particulars, the messy and tyrannical racial undercurrents of her bond with Annie and Sebastian go unarticulated, even as their presence remains pervasive. It’s in those latter relationships that Lady Macbeth mutates from a rather straightforward tale of rebellious feminine wrath into something altogether more twisted and unnerving. The director’s camera gazes soberly at Katherine as she reveals herself to be capable of doing whatever it takes to achieve her ends—including exploiting the subjugated and striking them mute, destroying the weak, and thus rendering them victims of the very same social-hierarchy injustice she herself suffered at the hands of her husband.
At the center of this tranquil nightmare stands Pugh, whose central performance is a thing of beautiful monstrousness. Her open-faced stoicism a mask adorned to hide her roiling inner emotions, and cracked only by occasional smiles that radiate condescension, disgust and fury, Pugh is a transfixing avenging angel. Like her Shakespearean namesake, she’s cast in feminine and masculine terms, the better to express how her embrace of her oppressors’ methods is the source of her supremacy and, also, her corruption. Even more than her exacting body language, it’s Pugh’s cunning eyes that are the key to her masterful embodiment of this femme fatale, vacillating on a dime—as in the preface to the ghastly conclusion—between the sweet compliance expected of her, and the heartless emptiness lurking within. Ending on a pitch-perfect note of moral annihilation, it’s a turn of sly nuance and terrifying precision, destined to catapult Pugh to grander stages, and (in its final image) to cement the savage, duplicitous Katherine as a legitimate heir to both the Kubrickian and film noir thrones.
She is woman, hear her (silently, defiantly, pitilessly) roar.