Deep into the second act of Lady Macbeth--a cinematic deep-dive into the obsessions of a young woman whose real name isn't Macbeth, nor is she any kind of lady--the lead character is in the throes of a torrid and often violent affair with a farmhand from her husband's 19th-century rural England estate.
"I shan't be parted from you alive," she whispers to her lover. "Through hell and high water, I will follow you. To the cross, to the prison, to the grave, to the sky. I'd rather stop you breathing than let you doubt how I feel." Her words are passionate but also foreboding. Indeed, something wicked this way comes for the lovers.
Ever since seeing Lady Macbeth, I can't shake it, particularly the star-making lead performance from 21-year-old Florence Pugh. The film is very dark, but it's a sight to behold.
Screenwriter Alice Birch lays multiple, unexpected traps throughout her new adaptation of Nikolai Leskov's 1865 novel Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. The first trap is sympathy for the young lady—her real name is Katherine—at the beginning of the film. We first meet Katherine at a wedding altar where she is meeting her husband-to-be for the first time. She has been sold, along with a plot of land, to the groom, Alexander (Paul Hilton). Immediately after the wedding ceremony, Alexander, an ugly drunk, wastes little time in setting the stage for a loveless marriage.
"Are you comfortable?" he asks his new bride soon after they have retired to his bedroom.
"Yes, sir. Thank you," says Katherine, biting her lower lip.
"The house gets cold," he mutters.
"I'm thick-skinned," she says with a smile.
The mood is suddenly shattered when Alexander barks, "Take it off!"
Katherine is taken aback, but Alexander screams again, this time even louder.
"Your night dress! Take it off!"
Katherine drops the nightgown to the floor. Alexander takes a quick look at her virgin form, dims the light, crawls into bed and turns his back on the stunned, naked newlywed whose thick skin grows another layer.
Katherine is squeezed into corsets and hoop skirts each morning, and her days are choked by tedium and silence. When Alexander is called away from the estate, Katherine escapes to the cold moors of northeast England, further toughening her up. Eventually she ventures into dangerous territory among the barns on the estate, where she encounters—and is soon screwing—the handsome but violent farmhand, Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis). At first, they do their best to keep their affair a secret, but their sexual trysts become more brazen, and they pay little attention to the whispers of servants and townspeople who have branded Katherine a whore.
Katherine is no innocent. Her taste for evil is in her DNA, and her twists of the screw (literally and figuratively) tighten her resolve to control her destiny, no matter the consequence. In short order, we witness homicide, infanticide and even equicide. Katherine becomes equal parts Madame Bovary and Lizzie Borden with a bit of Thomas Ripley tossed in for bad measure. Like Shakespeare's own Lady Macbeth, Katherine's hands and nightgown will be stained with blood by the climax of the film.
Leskov's novel has its own colorful past. In 1936, it was adapted by famed composer Dmitri Shostakovich into an opera. That famously triggered the ire of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and his media mouthpiece, Pravda, which wrote the story was "neurotic," adding that it "tickled the perverted taste of the bourgeoise." The opera was immediately banned from Soviet stages. In 1962, Polish film director Andrzej Wajda revisited the novel with his own film adaptation, Sibirska Ledi Magbet a.k.a. Siberian Lady Macbeth. Now in 2017, we get a film adaptation from director William Oldroyd, known primarily as a stage director of classics ranging from Henrik Ibsen's Ghosts to Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot. Oldroyd chose Lady Macbeth for his feature film debut and considering he has cast newcomer Pugh (who was in just one feature film previously) as his leading lady it is doubly impressive. In its review of Lady Macbeth, Variety said Pugh "announces herself as a major talent to watch," adding Oldroyd's screen directorial debut is "impressively tough-minded."
Lady Macbeth won't be for everyone. It's very heady stuff—have I mentioned it's dark?—but Pugh's performance is one of the best of the summer. This macabre mini-masterpiece reminds us why the original 19th century story still packs a wicked punch.