LADY MACBETH, costume drama, rated R, Violet Crown, 4 chiles
William Oldroyd’s stunning first feature film may be called but the lady of this house makes no bones about the blood on her hands. Adapted from Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 novella, this scorched-earth tale of revenge set in misty Northumberland centers on the fate of Katherine (Florence Pugh), a young woman with a subversive smirk who is grappling with her new life as the neglected bride of a cruel, domineering man twice her age. Denied companionship and fresh air, she spends her days glassy-eyed with boredom, rustling her taffeta skirts around a gilded cage filled with Victorian furniture.
When her husband and his father (Paul Hilton and Christopher Fairbank) leave the estate to tend to business, Katherine seizes her opportunity, entering into a bodice-ripping assignation with the earthy, sullen stablehand Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis). After their first vigorous encounter, the lady wakes alone in her sleigh bed. While her maid Anna (Naomi Ackie) opens the shutters to let the morning sun spill into the room, Katherine lies in repose, naked under the sheets, her pink dressing gown left crumpled on the floor. As Anna closes the door discreetly behind her, Katherine begins to giggle — a nasty mean-girl guffaw that turns into a full-throated cackle of delight. Freed by the assertion of her sexuality, she will stop at nothing to preserve the liaison.
After the men return to discover her infidelity, her newfound liberation is tested — with murderous results. For a short time, Katherine and Sebastian bask in the binding romance of their deeds, Katherine smothering his face and body in succubus-like kisses while assuring him that their increasingly violent acts are a justifiable means of protecting their love. But if Lady Chatterley had sex without guilt, Katherine has sex with malice aforethought. Pugh’s breakout performance is subtle but towering — reminiscent of a younger Kate Winslet — and increasingly captivating as Katherine overtakes Sebastian in her bloodlust. Her relationship with Anna, who she alternately uses and abuses, is all the more complex for its racial and class overtones, as is her freewheeling association with the lower-class and darker-skinned Sebastian. The arrival of her husband’s young ward — the product of his own interracial rendezvous — adds an extra layer of intrigue in the film’s devastating third act.
Poets talk about the test of the line, in which each line of a poem is meant to stand on its own as an exemplar of formal beauty. Oldroyd seems to adhere to a test of the frame, as every still in Lady Macbeth is visually arresting and gorgeously composed, from Katherine falling over from the recoil of a shotgun, dressed in a bloodstained nightdress, to the masterful final shots of her own self-reckoning. Settling back into the drawing room with only herself and her deeds to keep her company, she’s again clad in iridescent taffeta, not a damned spot in sight.
Bodice-ripper: Florence Pugh and Cosmo Jarvis