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.
Trouble follows, and it’s trouble better left unspoiled here. But as the couple’s affair builds, tension mounts, particularly once Boris makes an unexpected return. Oldroyd’s understated direction only makes the shocks hit harder. He takes a stately, unhurried approach that captures the slowness of life in a big 19th century country house, but also the dullness. A young woman alone would, of course, be desperate to break the tedium. A young woman infatuated with a handsome, responsive man — especially one just figuring out what sex is all about — wouldn’t probably have to think too hard about how to go about that.
Pugh — an actress to keep an eye on — takes a character who seems at first too delicate for the world on a fascinating journey into the darkness, and the film, while not excusing her choices, doesn’t rush to judge them either. We’re not told much of her background, but the marriage is referred to in terms usually reserved for acquiring a piece of property and neither Boris nor Alexander her spare her a kind word or a gentle look. What sympathy she gets comes from Anna, but it’s kept in check by a fear of upsetting her employers — and a scene in which Boris demands Anna crawl on her hands and knees like an animal makes clear how well-founded that fear is.
That Anna is black makes her position all the more perilous. Race is never mentioned in Lady Macbeth but it’s the unspoken subtext on which much of the film rests. Sebastian is of mixed race and Jarvis plays him as a character torn between his lust, his fear of discovery, and a creeping horror at what his affair with Katherine has led him to do. A pair of late-arriving characters further complicate the racial dynamic, and reveal Alexander as a man with secrets of his own.
This is a costume drama with little use for the romanticized politeness usually associated with depictions of Victorian country life, the sort of story James M. Cain might have told if he’d been born a century earlier. And once the film gets within sight of its dark final destination, Oldroyd doesn’t shy away from taking it all the way there with Pugh keeping pace every step of the way. Over the course of the film she makes Katherine by turns shy, bored, taunting, seductive, and monstrous, before landing on an expression sphinx-like ambiguity in the film’s final moments. By then it’s hard to know what she’s thinking or what, if anything, she feels. But the mystery of the title, however, has long been laid to rest.