No, it’s not Shakespeare: despite the title, the new British production Lady MacBeth is based on Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, a lesser-known 19th century Russian novella written by Nikolai Leskov.
Still, it doesn’t take us long to see where that title comes from: a devious central character who manipulates those around her with devastating consequences.
We might initially feel sympathy with Katherine (played by Florence Pugh), who has apparently been sold into a loveless marriage, left untouched by her husband Alexander (Paul Hilton) at the rural farmhouse where they reside with his father Boris (Christopher Fairbank) and servants that include the put-upon maid Anna (Naomi Ackie).
But we will ultimately come to despise her: as cold-blooded as just about any fictional villain, she masterminds the fates of those that surround her without a hint of remorse or even a thought for others.
The villainy come about after Katherine, starved for attention or perhaps simply bored, begins an affair with womanizing farmhand Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis). We’re unsure as to whether she truly cares about the servant, who sleeps in her bed while her husband is away, or if she simply gives in to lust.
Or perhaps she just wants to prove to the world – and those around her – that she is untouchable: her affair is illicit, but as long as she can protect Sebastian and continue it, she stands in defiance to the social constructs of the times.
But the story takes an especially dark turn with the arrival of Agnes (Golda Rosheuvel) and her grandson Teddy – who she claims is Alexander’s illegitimate son and a rightful heir to his estate.
The events of the original novella, which take place in 19th century Russia, have been transposed to rural England during the same era without missing a beat. The gloomy Dostoyevsky-like storyline has an inherent mood, but it’s one that resonates on both sides of the continent.
Lady MacBeth isn’t a horror film, but it’s more disturbing than many of them. The careful recreation of the time and place, and slow-burn buildup of dread, reminded me greatly of 2015’s The Witch. Like that movie, nearly the entire film unfolds without a musical score, apart from a couple striking segments.
Director William Oldroyd, making his feature debut with the film, displays an incredibly sure hand here, and gets a tour-de-force performance from young star Florence Pugh; without her exceptional work, the movie wouldn’t have been nearly effective.
Lady MacBeth isn’t a pleasant or particularly engaging film to watch, but it is certainly a memorable one.
The same story was previously adapted by Polish director Andrzej Wajda as Siberian Lady Macbeth in 1962.