The young Katherine (Florence Pugh) is sold into marriage to an older man (Paul Hilton) in this new British drama.
That Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 novel, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, has already become an opera, a ballet and another film is testament to the richness of its themes and complexity of its characters. Lady Macbeth relocates the gothic drama from grim 19th-century Russia to the equally grim north of England, creating a frosty, oppressive atmosphere that’s reminiscent of Wuthering Heights – specifically Andrea Arnold’s visceral, elemental film from 2011 (in which Hilton also starred); a bleak moorland setting, a mixed-race love affair and a degree of horse death usually reserved for Iceland lasagnas.
From a talented cast, Pugh’s Lady Macbeth performance stands out, changing with chilling credibility and slowly twisting our sympathies. With her hair and corset pulled oppressively tight, Katherine is torturously trapped with a man she hates, Melania Trump style – except Katherine actually has to live with her husband. William Oldroyd’s camera sits anxiously still and we’re right in there with them, imprisoned in a huge, hideous house, barely inhabited by people who despise each other. Like Celebrity Big Brother 5.
While certain elements of the plot feel more plausible than others, the film strikes a tense balance between stark naturalism and operatic gut-punches. It also deals with the subordination of women and the voicelessness of black people, and does so in a manner more haunting than many films that are actually about hauntings. Nervy and unpredictable, Lady Macbeth is a strong debut feature by Oldroyd, who leaves a lasting impression with his chilly atmosphere, symmetrical compositions and the best cat since Elle. Two paws up.