In its opening scenes, it seems like Lady Macbeth has been mistitled. Somewhere in a gloomy, windswept, rural corner of Victorian England, Anna (Naomi Ackie) prepares the young Katherine (Florence Pugh) for her wedding. A terse ceremony follows, attended by few beyond Katherine’s husband-to-be Alexander (Paul Hilton) and his vulture-like father Boris (Christopher Fairbanks). Katherine remains mostly silent during the wedding. She stays silent a lot, putting up no protest when, alone on their wedding night, Alexander asks her to remove her clothes. She doesn’t even say anything when he leaves her untouched and retires to bed. She’s silent, too, in the early days of their marriage, nodding off as Boris and Alexander host a dinner to discuss the family’s mining business. Surely this meek creature can have nothing in common with Shakespeare’s murder-minded Scotswoman?
But there’s a lot going on beneath that silence, and there’s a lot going on under the surface of William Oldroyd’s first feature, an adaptation of Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, an 1865 novel by Russian writer Nikolai Leskov. Like its heroine, the film uses quietness and stillness to disarm viewers as it slowly works its way to one shocking twist after another.
Often busy elsewhere, Boris and Alexander leave Katherine alone for long stretches. Though told she should keep to the house, she uses the time to explore the countryside, wandering the fields and woods and, one day, stumbling on some field workers enjoying a bit of mischief. She chastises them, singling out Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis) for a particularly stern rebuke. But there’s a spark between them and when Sebastian turns up at her room one night, Katherine puts up a half-hearted protest before taking him as a lover.