The quiet, uncomfortable film follows young Katherine (Florence Pugh) who has been married off to a much older man. Set in rural 1860s England, Katherine is relegated to a stark, oppressive life. While the house is better than some, it is fraying at the edges, a vestige of former wealth. Her husband (Paul Hilton) is abusive and bizarre, and her father-in-law (Christopher Fairbank) is even worse.
When the men leave the estate for business, Katherine is left to her own devices. She flouts the rules and goes for long walks on the wild moors. She asserts herself among the farm workers and with her lady’s maid, Anna (Naomi Ackie). Once she tastes this power, she refuses to resume the life of a good and obedient wife. She takes on a lover (Cosmo Jarvis) and runs the household as though it were her own.
When her husband and father-in-law return, her humiliation and anger drive her to murder.
While I appreciated the slowness of the film, it still took too long for Katherine to build up to her first act of revenge. I know as a viewer we needed to see the dullness and unfairness of her daily life to understand her motives, yet it still seemed too long. Once she begins to hatch plots, the film becomes much more interesting, and certainly less predictable.
It is beautifully shot, with soft lighting that eases the hard edges off of everything. That texture and the editing make it feel dream-like. It’s difficult to tell how much time has passed, no doubt to emulate the lost feeling for Katherine.
The acting is fantastic, and Pugh especially shines. Her ability to show a depth of complicated emotion in only the slightest smirk or deadened eye is what makes the film strong.
Shakespeare purists will not find a faithful adaptation. Rather, this film is based on a short Russian novel, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District by Nikolai Leskov. But it does draw on the themes of Shakespeare’s MacBeth. She is a fierce woman, tired of living by her husband’s rules and she has no problem committing murder to get what she wants. And, as is the sign of good storytelling, the audience is tempted to cheer for her.
Directed by William Oldroyd
Written by Nikolai Leskov (based on Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk) and Alice Birch (screenplay)
Produced by Fodhla Cronin O’Reilly
Cast: Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis, Naomi Ackie, Christopher Fairbank
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