Lady Macbeth Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis, Naomi Ackie. Directed by William Oldroyd. Rated R. Opens Friday at Green Valley Ranch and Village Square.
When she first appears at the beginning of Lady Macbeth, Katherine Lester (Florence Pugh) seems meek and abashed. Director William Oldroyd keeps his camera close on Katherine’s face during her wedding to Alexander (Paul Hilton), as she can barely even muster the fortitude to sing a hymn. Later, as her husband barks orders at her in the bedroom, she seems like she wants nothing more than to disappear. But Katherine is the opposite of meek, as the movie and Pugh’s fearsome performance soon make clear. Left at her seaside English country estate while her husband and his even more unpleasant father Boris (Christopher Fairbank) are away on business, Katherine impulsively starts a heated affair with Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), a groomsman on the property.
Emboldened by her newfound passion, she openly flaunts her adultery, and then events take a darker turn once first her father-in-law and later her husband return home. Is Katherine righteously rebelling against the stifling roles for women in 19th-century England? Or is she just a straight-up sociopath? Alice Birch’s script, based on the 1865 novel by Russian writer Nikolai Leskov, keeps the answers to those questions a mystery, and Oldroyd’s direction and Pugh’s performance encourage the ambiguity, even as Katherine remains fierce and mesmerizing.
Oldroyd captures the bleak emptiness of Katherine’s surroundings, along with the endless boredom of her lifestyle, sitting around a dank, dreary house all day with nothing to do and no one to talk to. The rigid class structure creates distance between Katherine and her maid Anna (Naomi Ackie), who eventually becomes an unwitting accomplice and tragic victim of Katherine’s misdeeds. Katherine takes a sort of sadistic (but also self-destructive) pleasure in defying every standard of her gender and social class, and the movie never flinches as she tears her stable but oppressive life to pieces.