Despite the title, this is not a retelling of Shakespeare’s Scottish play. Based on the novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk by Nikolai Leskov, Lady Macbeth is a Victorian period drama with a female lead who echoes the woman alluded to in the film’s title. Imagine Wuthering Heights meets Anna Karenina: that’s exactly what this movie delivers.
The film begins as Katherine (Florence Pugh) is red-eyed and hesitant at her wedding to a much older man (Paul Hilton). She lives on an isolated estate with him and his father (Christopher Fairbank). Through a series of short scenes with sparse dialogue and sound, it is quickly established that the marriage is an unwelcome event for both Katherine and her husband. We see her being made to undress and face a wall as he pleasures himself from the opposite side of the room. The lonely marriage continues through a sequence of Katherine repeatedly dressing for the day, eating her meals and sleeping, with only her maid Anna (Naomi Ackie) as a companion. With limited action and an almost silent script, the film’s opening is slow but provides a much-needed contrast to what is in store for our protagonist.
The film picks up momentum when Katherine meets Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis). With her distant husband away from the estate, she finds herself falling for the new stable groom. After he attempts to attack her twice, her bold move to take control seems out-of-place initially; but the excitement Sebastian brings is a welcome break from her husband for both Katherine and us as an audience.
When her father-in-law discovers what she has been up to, a previously young and innocent Katherine turns into a cunning heroine who can manipulate her way out of every situation. You will be left on the edge of your seat in anticipation of her next move. Anna is left mute after witnessing the extent of her lady’s vengeance. Her calculating steps are joined by Sebastian’s loyalty until even he is unsafe close to her.
The running time is only 89 minutes; however, the brilliant pacing and excellent writing fits a lot in. The script features very few moments of exposition and only reveals what it needs to, rather than dressing up the story. This is also the case with the set as the sparse decoration of it means that the attention stays on Katherine’s tale.
Everyone in the cinema remained silent throughout the entire credit roll, attempting to come to a decision on what they thought about such an incredible but psychologically unsettling film. Although violence marks the tense drama of Katherine’s actions, it is the sinister plots her mind conjures up that casts an icy veil over the audience.
With death, sex and an unforgiving female lead, Lady Macbeth is a spectacular film worth watching.
Rating: 4 out of 5 pugs.