The Russian author Nikolai Leskov’s lurid Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District was first published in Dostoevsky’s Epoch magazine in 1865, and has inspired varied adaptations ranging from a 1934 Russian opera by Shostakovich to Polish director Andrzej Wajda’s 1962 film Siberian Lady Macbeth. This latest incarnation transfers the twisted passions of the source material to the rugged landscapes of Victorian-era north-east England, where repression and rebellion conjoin in a heady cocktail of lust, intrigue and murder. In the process, Lady Macbeth both cements rising star Florence Pugh’s deserved reputation as one of the UK’s most exciting screen talents and announces theatre graduate William Oldroyd as a film director of immense promise.
Written with razor-sharp wit by playwright Alice Birch (also making her feature debut), the biting narrative opens with Pugh’s teenage Katherine being perfunctorily married to Paul Hilton’s openly hostile Alexander, a pathetic, rage-fuelled colliery heir whose father purchased the bride along with a piece of land “not fit for a cow to graze upon”. At first, Katherine’s stifling situation threatens to send her into a suffocated sleep. But after a Straw Dogs-inflected showdown with Cosmo Jarvis’s rough-hewn groom, Sebastian, she begins to exert her independence, to the horror of her absent husband’s viciously lugubrious father, Boris (Christopher Fairbank), and patronising local clergyman Father Peter (Cliff Burnett). As the titular allusion to Shakespeare suggests, guilty blood must flow, but along with nods to Madame Bovary and Lady Chatterley, Oldroyd and Birch take this tale of dark deeds and rebellious women in a subtly different direction to Leskov’s source.
Having perfectly captured the ambiguous tone of Carol Morley’s superb psychological mystery The Falling, here Pugh walks a tightrope between audience sympathy and revulsion, a dramatic balancing act that she pulls off with aplomb. Early scenes of Katherine’s escape from confinement on to misty moors have the same Brontë-esque lust for life that Andrea Arnold captured in her 2011 adaptation of Wuthering Heights. Encounters with stifling patriarchy amuse and appal in equal measure, as Katherine proves more than a match for any man – smarter, sharper and more deadly. All of which means that when things turn nasty, we are sufficiently invested in her future to feel horribly complicit in her crimes.
In its darkest moments, Lady Macbeth owes a clear stylistic debt to the deadpan provocations of Michael Haneke, particularly when cinematographer Ari Wegner’s widescreen frame captures an unspeakable act in a single, static long shot, the elegant symmetry accentuating the horror. Elsewhere, handheld close-ups lend an urgent intimacy to Katherine’s emotional and physical travails. This may be a low-budget affair (reportedly less than £500,000), but it’s as richly textured as any more expensive period piece.
Much of that texture comes from the expressionist sound designs, which juxtapose the clatter of window shutters and crockery inside the house with the more sensual throbs of wind, rain and thunder that sweep through the exterior scenes. Music cues are kept to a minimum; I counted only three, each one a brooding ambient hum in the nightmarish aftermath of a mortal sin. Plaudits to Ben Baird and Dan Jones for their joint work conjuring this superb aural landscape.
While Pugh’s Katherine dominates the screen, she is fascinatingly mirrored by Naomi Ackie’s Anna, the maid who loses her voice as Katherine finds hers. Anna is subservient and humiliated, Katherine demonised and vilified, yet both are products of a society that imprisons women, whether within servants’ uniforms or cage-like crinolines. In one particularly alarming scene, Katherine looks on while Boris forces Anna to crawl on her knees “like an animal”, just one of a number of feral transmutations that find characters likened to tethered dogs, hung up like sows, sleeping in barns or brushed and tressed like horses.
Other terrific supporting turns include established talent Golda Rosheuvel and young newcomer Anton Palmer, whose appearance derails Katherine’s plans to turn the world upside down. Worth noting, too, that the film’s unblinkered approach to ethnicity (diverse, but never overtly mentioned) not only enriches the drama by challenging the whitewashed facade of much period fare, but also ensures that every role is filled by the best possible player.
Amid such an accomplished ensemble cast, Pugh is an electrifying presence, imposingly framed by the blue, gold and black hues of Holly Waddington’s costumes. Identified as a future star by my Observer colleague Guy Lodge back in 2014, this fearless performer seems hellbent on greatness. Appropriately, with a raft of forthcoming roles including a portrayal of British wrestler Paige in Fighting With My Family, Pugh’s in-demand status has ensured that this mesmerising Lady Macbeth shall sleep no more.