Year: 2017
Director(s): William Oldroyd
Writer(s): Alice Birch, Nikolai Leskov
Region of Origin: UK

Aspect Ratio: 2.39:1
Rating: R
Digital, Color, 89 mins

Synopsis: Set in 19th century rural England, a young bride who has been sold into marriage discovers an unstoppable desire within herself as she enters into an affair with a worker on her estate. (Source)

Step aside everyone, 2017’s femme fatale is here. A knockout debut in every sense, director William Oldroyd has conjured up dark power with Lady Macbeth, exploring one woman’s attempt to take control of her life no matter what. An atmospheric period piece that sizzles with seductive nuance and damning ferocity, Oldroyd’s film pulls from Nikolai Leskov’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, illustrating an irresistible character who we can’t and don’t want to look away from. As Oldroyd’s anti-heroine ascends to power by tooth and claw, the parallels of her circumstance and its reflection of modern day dissonance are as relevant as ever. Star Florence Pugh is savage, contributing to a film that’s as sharp and fatal as a dagger’s edge, coming out of the gate swinging and going out in a way that’ll leave viewers gasping for breath.

In 1865 rural England, young Katherine (Florence Pugh) is in a dead-end marriage with an older man, Alexander (Paul Hilton). Katherine is the result of a sale, inherited with the purchase of land. She’s constantly berated by both her husband and father-in-law, Boris (Christopher Fairbank), and punished for not carrying out her “duties” as a wife, even if Alexander can’t bring himself to touch her. Treated as an object, she bides her time, listless and longing for more. An opportunity presents itself when Alexander and Sebastian leave the estate for business, leading her to discover a new house worker named Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis). The two engage in a whirlwind affair, but their actions bring wide-reaching consequences and kick off a chain of uncontrollable events.

The sheer brilliance of Oldroyd’s film, is its ability to tread a delicate balance, presenting Katherine as both hero and villain. Throughout, we’re never quite sure what to think of her, admiring her cunning resolution in the face of inhumane treatment, but being appalled at the horrors she perpetuates. This contrast allows Oldroyd to create a microcosm showing what a feminine force of nature must do to navigate a treacherous world controlled by men. As such, this intimate portrait showcases Katherine as someone who can’t comfortably be labeled a victim, nor contained by circumstance – she’s truly above black-and-white classification. Bringing Katherine’s oppressive world to life, Oldroyd drenches each frame in existential dread, contrasting perfectly framed compositions and quietly held shots to contrast the chaos within. It all makes for a harrowing vision that is completely unhinged from minute to minute, as Katherine quietly pulls strings which create chaos for herself and those around her.

With a cast of just under a handful of characters, each performer’s weight is felt, and Florence Pugh leads the pack. Even before we’re immersed into the horrors of Katherine’s daily life, Pugh exudes a presence that’s unmistakable – half bored, half ready to explode, with a sly sense of self-awareness in her eyes. There’s also a mischief about Pugh that makes her magnetic, balancing both power and heartbreak in a single glance. Make no mistake, this is Pugh’s film, and she totally shines, carrying the entire thing with ease. Rounding her out, Cosmo Jarvis’ Sebastian is a smart contrast, someone who’s initial introduction turns out to be a bit misleading. Jarvis gives us a multi-faceted performance, transforming before our very eyes and never being who he seems to be. Lastly, Naomi Ackie’s Anna is indispensable, playing a worker who must then navigate Katherine’s dangerous gambles, each more fatal than the last. Ackie carries some of the film’s most memorable scenes and helps to make everything cut that much more.

Lady Macbeth is peak craft, a thriller that suffocates without fear of going in for the kill. Like the best films, it doesn’t end once the credits roll, but sticks with us, especially given where it ends up and how it turns the tables on its characters. Though we’re finally able to breathe when it concludes, the damage is already done, and we’re left with an engrossing reflection of toxic masculinity, feminine liberation and the nasty, never-ending struggle between the two.

SG