Lady Macbeth feels like gussied-up exploitation incapable of wringing any actual substance out of its lurid trappings.
Set against an austere backdrop of rural Victorian-era England, Lady Macbeth showcases abject cruelty that poses as a revenge story before unfurling into something rotten. The best that can be said for William OIdroyd’s directorial debut is that the film provides an intense breakthrough role for 21-year-old British actress Florence Pugh. She plays Katherine, a young woman who is essentially purchased as part of a land deal in the hopes of her birthing an heir to a coal mine owner’s middle-aged son (Paul Hilton), a pathetic man who snivels in the shadow of his cartoonishly overbearing father (Christopher Fairbank) and drunkenly jerks off to Katherine’s forced nakedness rather than actually have sex with her.
Despite the oppression she endures—both her husband and father-in-law dictate her rigid schedule and insist she stay indoors—Katherine’s initial reaction to this grotesque misogyny is simple boredom. The 1860s-era affluence she married into means there are a host of servants and hired hands to tend the house and grounds, leaving Katherine with little to do but get elaborately dressed each morning—with the assistance of her poorly-treated servant, Anna (Naomi Ackie)—and wait for the men to return home. Stifled by the tedium and strapped into a vivid blue dress, she routinely nods off while sitting in the parlor, dust motes conspicuously floating in the natural light that basks the room. By the same token, she can’t make it through dinner without yawning and, when excused by her father-in-law, must be supervised by the meek Anna to ensure she doesn’t fall asleep before her husband, who refuses to touch her, retires to the marriage bed as well. Things change when a brash new farmhand, Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), appears and makes a move on her.
Invading her room in a borderline assault, Sebastian provides Katherine with the spark she so desperately craves, and urgent, primal sex ensues. When a mine explosion calls away both her bitter husband and vile father-in-law, Katherine grows increasingly brazen and reckless with her torrid affair, to the point that word spreads to her absent husband. Soon, she’s committing a string of increasingly brutal murders to eliminate obstacles keeping her from her beloved Sebastian. What could be construed as righteous vengeance turns sour about the time she’s compelled to awkwardly shoot a horse to cover up her crimes, and it only gets worse from there, leaving Sebastian in a conflicted state where his conscience begins to get the better of his libido.
Based on the novella “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” by 19th century Russian writer Nikolai Leskov, Oldroyd’s film features clever edits, stark cinematography and tour de force by Pugh. And yet, there’s a hollowness to a film that seeks only to stoke our outrage at the ugliness of blatant misogyny and more nuanced racism—Sebastian is biracial, Anna and many of the mistreated servants are black and there are two other horribly wronged characters later in the film who are also of African descent—while wholly sidestepping any meaningful commentary on those cultural ills. As Katherine begins to transform into a far more vicious monster than the men who hold sway over her (and does so simply to keep fucking the stable boy), she loses whatever defiant virtue her violence may have initially laid claim to, leaving Lady Macbeth feeling like gussied-up exploitation incapable of wringing any actual substance out of its lurid trappings.