Synopsis: “Rural England, 1865. Katherine is stifled by her loveless marriage to a bitter man twice her age, whose family are cold and unforgiving. When she embarks on a passionate affair with a young worker on her husband’s estate, a force is unleashed inside her, so powerful that she will stop at nothing to get what she wants.”
Oldroyd establishes early on that this will not be a run-of-the-mill costume drama, but rather a melodrama that will play with viewer expectations at every turn.
We first see Katherine (Florence Pugh) on her wedding day; a simple shot of her demure face under a veil, turning coquettishly towards the camera. The next scene finds Katherine on her wedding night, her Grinch of a husband barking at her to remove her night-gown only for him to glance at her naked body before he gets into bed and falls asleep.
There is no romance here.
For the first half hour Lady Macbeth feels like a study of boredom, as we are exposed to the same dull, quiet rooms as Katherine, with just a ticking clock marking the passage of time in the cold northern home she now inhabits, virtually alone, as her husband and father-in-law have departed for undisclosed locations. Motes of dust become dazzling points of light, otherwise the screen is still and bereft of interest, bar Florence Pugh’s captivating face.
Katherine’s sole companion in the manor is her lady-in-waiting Anna (Naomi Ackie) who helps her dress, brushes her hair and serves her dinner with increasing levels of aggression, (the reasons for which become abundantly clear).
A turning point in the story of solitude comes when Katherine wanders to the outhouses out of boredom one day to find Anna being held hostage, naked, by some of the workers. She demands she is released and bad-boy groomsman Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis) is introduced to the story.
After a distinctly problematic courtship (Straw Dogs, anyone?) a relationship between the pair unfolds and it becomes apparent that Katherine is not the usual costume-drama heroine. As her behaviour descends into the unpleasant, then the horrific, any audience sympathy for Katherine dissipates and Lady Macbeth begins to feel like an odd combination of Wuthering Heights and 2011 horror film The Woman; an exploration of the natural, primal and animalistic versus the urbane, civilised and constrained.
Katherine’s choices are made out of boredom, as a way of raging against her captivity, and Pugh’s performance is every inch the caged tiger.
There are some bold directorial choices made, with the camera often avoiding some of the more disturbing action, remaining static as if keeping it’s gaze demurely averted.
The soundtrack is as sparse and unnerving as the visuals, with long passages of almost complete silence, often punctuated only by the naturalistic soundtrack of the wind whistling around the house, or the aforementioned clock ticking.
Lady Macbeth is both a bold directorial debut for Oldroyd and also a showcase of the significant talent of Florence Pugh, but the dark tale certainly won’t be for everyone.
7 out of 10