Starring Florence Pugh. Rated 14A
Hell hath no fury like a woman locked up and laced into a tight corset. That seems to be the message of Lady Macbeth, a bleak and brutally excellent new film—echoing similar lessons from the equally savage, but less complex period piece The Beguiled.
Here, it’s 1865 England, and the mysterious Katherine (transfixing Florence Pugh) is a teenager sold off to a cruel, disinterested husband. Director William Oldroyd does a masterful job of conveying her marital prison, a gloomy dark-wood-trimmed mansion where you can practically feel the draft. Its silence grows louder as the movie goes along, broken only by the echoing tick of a grandfather clock and servants climbing creaking stairs.
Katherine is banned from going outside—the fresh air is bad for women, the men of the house deem—and she’s left to stare out a window at the surrounding moors, or to sit still on an ornate settee in her taffeta gowns.
But in Katherine’s gaze, you can see hints of impudence and rebellion—and later, rage. So as soon as her husband leaves home to tend to problems at the faraway family coal mine, she takes up with a rough, brazen groomsman (Cosmo Jarvis), and all hell breaks loose.
As you can probably tell by now, this tale is more Wuthering Heights than Macbeth. It’s based on Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, an 1865 novella by Russian writer Nikolai Leskov. And by invoking Shakespeare’s baddest female character, Leskov and screenwriter (and feminist playwright) Alice Birch draw attention to the way Katherine has rebuffed motherhood and passivity for ruthless power.
What complicates all this is Anna (Naomi Ackie), Katherine’s black servant. As controlled as Katherine may be, she still has privilege, and Anna, who has none, is compelled to watch the carnage that ensues in wordless horror. In one shattering scene, she resorts to a long silent scream, alone in her quarters. But even Anna has a vengeful streak, and finds ways to exert her small power far beyond just pulling Katherine’s corset laces too tightly, brushing her hair too harshly, and burning her skin with hot bathwater.
Oldroyd, too, pulls things stiflingly taut, ratcheting up the tension, always complicating empathy, and taking things ever darker. Call it a pretty period piece gone ugly. The lingering questions: Can extreme constraint push a woman to do ugly things? And why do we feel such outrage when women do such ugly things?