Shakespeare’s conniving Queen of Scotland is nowhere to be found in it, but a whole lot of courage gets screwed to the sticking place in “Lady Macbeth.” An impressively stark, narratively ruthless Victorian chamber piece that feels about as modern as its crinolines will permit, William Oldroyd’s pristine debut feature slowly reveals a violent moral ambiguity that needles the mind far longer than its polite period-piece trappings suggest. This disquieting drama of an arranged marriage gone drastically awry may come to be most remembered, however, as the film that gave 19-year-old Florence Pugh her first leading-lady showcase: Fully realizing the promise of earlier, smaller parts, the British actress impresses with precocious poise, sensuality and venom in a still-waters role just about worthy of the film’s eponymous inspiration. Though the film’s austere outlook compromises its commercial appeal to the Masterpiece Theater crowd, it has the makings of a more rarefied arthouse conversation piece.
Shrewdly adapted (and anglicised) by first-time scribe Alice Birch from Russian writer Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 novella “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk,” “Lady Macbeth” will throw any viewers who approach it seeking overt allusions or parallels to the Scottish Play. The corruption of its characters emerges gradually, in pursuit not of power but of sexual freedom — a kind of power in itself, of course, not least for women still bound to the gender hierarchy of 19th-century England.
In 1865, on an anonymous stretch of farmland streaked in shades of moss and mud, teenage bride Katherine (Pugh) has barely any human liberties left to call her own. To the menfolk in her life, she is quite literally a commodity: Sold by her father, in a package deal with a bonus patch of land, to elderly colliery magnate Boris (Christopher Fairbank), she’s forced into nuptials to Boris’s glumly unprepossessing, middle-aged son Alexander (Paul Hilton). Birch’s script and Nick Emerson’s economical editing establish the terms of this trap in quick, calm strokes: We’re swiftly taken to the conjugal bed, where Alexander — who seems no keener on the arrangement than she — is unable to consummate the marriage.
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Like a captive princess in a particularly dour fairytale, Katherine is instructed by her brusque husband and brusquer father-in-law to remain indoors, attending to what limited wifely duties their ample staff of servants (including her impassive handmaid Anna, excellently played with a half-sympathetic, half-critical eye by Naomi Ackie) don’t cover. Her growing sense of empty frustration is sharply complemented by Jacqueline Abrahams’ production design, which foregoes “Downton Abbey” opulence for a coldly rustic, half-finished puritanism. All blank walls, dark wood and frayed edges, with a bile-hued couch the brightest detail, the otherwise gracious mansion perfectly reflects the amount of living that has been done in it.
When both Boris and Alexander are called away on business, however, Katherine crosses paths with cocksure groomsman James (impressively brooding musician-turned-actor Cosmo Jarvis) and experiences an unfamiliar frisson of actual feeling. The connection is mutual, and it’s not long before the two are treating the marital mattress to some unfamiliar action. But as familiar as this setup seems, no amount of hoary lady-and-the-stable-boy Harlequin romances will have prepared viewers for the cool-blooded turns this cross-class romance is about to take, as Katherine goes to increasingly untenable lengths to protect her newfound fulfilment.
At one level an extreme, unflinching feminist cautionary tale about the ultimate perils of chauvinistically containing or instructing a woman’s desires and impulses, “Lady Macbeth” also works as a fascinatingly inverted character study — wherein continued abuse and silencing gradually makes an oppressor of a victim.
It’s a fine-line exercise that requires an actress both commanding and sympathetic enough to pull it off: Pugh, hitherto best known for her small but crucially vivid turn as a charismatic schoolgirl in Carol Morley’s U.K. arthouse hit “The Falling,” doesn’t miss a note of Katherine’s complex, under-the-skin transformation. A child still getting to grips with the womanhood she had unwillingly thrust upon her, let alone the challenging, primal moral transgressions she has made in the name of independence, she’s a whirl of petulance and more mature anger, of confusion and seductive self-possession. Pugh folds these contradictions into one composed, consistent characterization, her smoothly expressive face giving us all the text between the lines of her spare dialogue.
Yet while Katherine is front and center in “Lady Macbeth,” Oldroyd’s film is quietly attuned to the separate social crises and prejudices faced by its secondary characters. That no overt mention is made on screen on Sebastian and Anna’s race — both are black —it turns out to be a resonant detail as Katherine exploits their disenfranchisement to shore up her own fragile status. As such, Oldroyd’s film winds up joining Amma Asante’s “Belle” in the limited pantheon of films to address racial relations in the old British gentry; like Andrea Arnold’s revisionist “Wuthering Heights,” however, it does so entirely tacitly.
Arnold’s fearless twist on heritage cinema comes to mind several times, in fact, during “Lady Macbeth.” Both films share a blunt, angular modernity in their approach to corset drama, with Ari Wegner’s clean, crisp widescreen lensing not adding a hint of old-world lacquer to the Victorian setting: Its sagebrush colors and symmetrical compositions still appear edged with this morning’s frost. Costume designer Holly Waddington contributes to the general air of disciplined realism with a selective, regularly recycled wardrobe: Katherine’s favorite peacock-blue gown, impressively regal at first sight, appropriately looks a little more sullied each time it reappears.