Based on the Nikolai Leskov novel Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, itself inspired by the character in Shakespeare’s classic Macbeth, William Oldroyd‘s daring film is far from the period piece one might expect given its title.
Tightly pieced together by Alice Birch‘s bold screenplay via a star-making performance from Florence Pugh, Lady Macbeth is a psycho-sexual thriller disguised as a Victorian-era character drama where the already-twisted source material adopts a far more horrific mentality.
Pugh is simply mesmerising as Katherine, a young trophy wife of sorts to the bitter and impotent Alexander (Paul Hilton). Their wedding night sets the tone for their loveless marriage – he demands she undress but shows no intention of following through on consummation – and it’s this frustration, as well as the nasty demeanour of her father-in-law (Christopher Fairbank), that drives Katherine into the arms of stable-hand Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis).
As cliched as the upstairs-downstairs angle between Katherine and Sebastian’s social standings in the household appear, their affair is anything but predictable as each passionate moment between the two (which initially don’t feel entirely consensual) builds a sense of fatalism that will ultimately be their undoing.
Given how wicked and amoral Katherine becomes, it’s a credit to Pugh’s unmatched performance that we stay with her character as long as we do. And as appalling as her actions are, she’s undeniably captivating in her chilling ability to bend whatever power she can afford to suit her will.
An unsettling, somewhat unpleasant, but undeniably powerful piece of cinema, Lady Macbeth delights at once with its Lady Chatterley-gone sadistic temperament and through Pugh’s terrifying turn, both components elevating this film beyond genre expectations.
Review Score: FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Lady Macbeth screens at Sydney Film Festival today and tomorrow. Head HERE for tickets. The film is released in Australian cinemas on June 29th.