In the first scene of Lady Macbeth, we see the young Katherine (Florence Pugh) passively watching as she is sold into marriage with an older man. As she takes her place in her husband's rural estate, ruled over by his severe and ancient father, it soon becomes clear that she is not going to conform to an obedient life as mistress of the house, though the early scenes offer no hint of just how dark a form her rebellion will take.
William Oldroyd's new film is a dark companion piece to other recent films about female repression (Terence Davies' Sunset Song and A Quiet Passion and Sofia Coppola's The Beguiled). But where the heroines of those films temper their rebellion with discretion, Lady Macbeth goes on a rampage. It's a genteel period drama rewritten with the perversity of Hitchcock or Chabrol.
What begins as a drawing-room drama slowly reveals a few impolite secrets. Katherine's husband Alexander keeps his distance from her in their bedroom, while his father harangues her about her failure to produce an heir. When Alexander is called away from home on business, his curious wife finds solace — loads of it — in the arms of one of their workers, Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), whom she quickly and unashamedly brings into the house, flaunting her behavior before the silent house staff while still trying to hide it from her father-in-law. Under ordinary norms, Katherine's reputation would be destroyed, but just when it looks as if her impropriety is about to be exposed, things turn very grim. The world of solemn domesticity is torn apart by violence and deception, yet the characters try to carry on, keeping up appearances.
If this sounds more like D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley than Shakespeare's hand-washing heroine, it's because the inspiration for Alice Birch's understated screenplay comes not from the legendary Scottish play but from Nikolai Leskov's 1865 novella The Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (adapted as an opera by Shostakovich in 1934 and filmed by Andrzej Wajda in 1962 as Siberian Lady Macbeth). Birch's version streamlines the action, eliminates Leskov's moral perspective and goes straight into the center of Katherine's icy soul. If it's not Shakespeare's Lady, it's what she might have become if she hadn't married well.
It's also a film of great simplicity and economy. Long quiet stretches are interrupted by sudden bursts of passion and punctuated by simple country landscapes. The tedium and oppression of Katherine's existence are summed up in everyday details, so that even the sound of a chair being pulled across a floor suggests a life continually spent on edge. Even her clothing, a massive hoop skirt with whalebone undercarriage, worn only after a great struggle, becomes a symbol of the false appearances of domesticity. When she sits with the vast garment covering nearly the length of a small sofa, it's as if she's created a private safety zone in the midst of the household.
Lady Macbeth is at times so sharp in its depiction of society and morality that it comes close to satire, and so bleak at others that it becomes almost hard to watch. (A subplot in which Katherine discovers that her husband has already fathered an heir leads almost casually into near-horror.) What holds it together, even more than Birch's skillful twists or Oldroyd's calm direction, is the extraordinary performance of Florence Pugh at its center. Only nineteen when Lady Macbeth was filmed, she dominates the film as shrewdly and self-assuredly as her character exercises control over those around her. Even though Katherine is silent or passive for much of the film, Pugh conveys the wide scale of her inner life, mischievously disrupting some conventions, manipulating others and eventually revealing her true ferociousness. It's a great, mature performance that turns Lady Macbeth's deceptive pastoral beginnings into a harrowing psychological drama of great force.