Set in chilly rooms and on misty moors, the Victorian-era drama Lady Macbeth initially seems slow moving. Well, cue the alarm—this film quickly turns on a dime. A rape becomes a seduction. A woman with the power of speech turns mute. And most scarily, a victim transforms into a victimizer, becoming increasingly daring and remorseless. Part gothic thriller and part harsh dissection of Victorian pathologies that persist into our own age, William Oldroyd’s debut film makes its deepest mark as a portrait of one obsessive woman who will stop at nothing to get her hands on what she craves.
Katherine possesses correct manners and lives in wealth, but she is a prisoner nevertheless. The young bride, married off to a weak and abusive husband, lives with him and her father-in-law in the stark, cold family manor. The husband is so hair-raisingly spiteful he makes Gollum from “The Lord of the Rings” look charming, while the family patriarch, Boris (Christopher Fairbank), curtly cuts her off when she’s speaking and forbids her from even setting foot outside.
If Katherine is a prisoner, than her black servant, Anna (Naomi Ackie), is barely more than a slave, at one point even forced her to crawl on the floor like a dog. When the estate’s mixed-race groomsman, James (Cosmo Jarvis, sensual and beautiful at one angle, feral and scary the next), plays a horrible prank on Anna, he attracts Katherine’s attention and sniffs out her sensual frustration. Soon James barges his way into the lady of the house’s bedroom for bouts of raw, hungry sex.
We can see early on that the pair’s wild passion makes James uneasy, while Katherine is consumed and emboldened by it. Armed with her reckless daring, the two will mount a deadly overthrow of the power structures in the house, an act that feels justified and liberating. At first.
Two stories unfold. The first follows Kate’s escalating war on her tormentors. A deeper one explores the way race muddies the relationships between mistress and servants. As vassals in Victorian England, James and Anna could band together, but one holds an advantage the other does not. Alliances wax and wane, with Katherine the first one to scrap loyalty for the upper hand, regardless if it impacts her lover or her maid. The right to speak is a privilege never shared by all. Katherine was told by Boris to keep her mouth shut, but it’s Anna who withdraws into muteness, perhaps a victim of post-traumatic stress disorder at the cruelty she witnesses (and experiences).
The film’s layered take on racial dynamics makes it feel very contemporary even in its corsets-and-teacups time frame. Lady Macbeth also throws postmodern shade on feminism. When a plucky girl rebels against two mean old men who want to keep her in her place, of course we’re going to root for her. We aren’t prepared for her to morph into a truly nasty woman—one whose heartless strikes provokes us to avert our eyes. When a loveable little boy with a fraught history enters the household, his arrival heightens racial tension and raises the stakes.
Buzzed-about 19-year-old Florence Pugh, as Katherine, nails her character’s dark evolution down cold. She’s blankly youthful and apple-cheeked as she confronts her domestic imprisonment and turns playful testing boundaries, then calculating as she weighs increasingly bleak options. Pugh’s performance is showy, intuitive, and tight-lipped all at once, and critics are right to single her out as an exciting new talent.
Sharp moments keep Lady Macbeth constantly poised on the brink of danger. Keenly observed grace notes nudge the film and the audience to the edge. By the time Katherine performs the ultimate betrayal, one of many, this controlled but devastating film has made our world, as well as hers, feel like a cold, diabolical place.