Macbeth’s wife in Shakespeare’s play was a heavenly angel compared to the Lady Macbeth in this nasty drama directed by William Oldroyd from a screenplay by Alice Birch adapted from the 1865 novella “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” by Nikolai Leskov. The setting for the film is now rural England in 1865.
At first one can be most sympathetic to Katherine, played by intriguing Florence Pugh. She is married at the age of 17 to Alexander (Paul Hilton), a brute of a husband, much older, lacking in love for her and treating her like a slave. Nor does he want sex. His thrills come from ordering her to undress, after which he ogles her and masturbates.
To make matters worse, she has a horrible father-in-law, Boris (Christopher Fairbank), a rich mine owner, who demeans her and also looks upon her as a piece of property. What is this poor woman to do? She resides on a large estate, but in total frustration, hungering for human warmth as well as for the sex that marriage is supposed to bring.
Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), a nervy, crude worker on the property, makes a pass at her, and while her husband is away, a full-fledged hot affair ensues between him and Katherine, and he begins to assume the role of lord of the mansion. Upon her husband’s return Katherine defiantly flaunts the relationship, which the husband has learned about via local gossip. Hell breaks loose, and the plot grows increasingly intricate, involving scheming and murder.
To complicate matters, Katherine is pregnant with her lover’s child. A fresh crisis erupts when a woman arrives with a young boy supposedly fathered by Alexander, and proceeds to take charge as if the child were the real heir. Katherine has by this time already turned into a horrible bitch who is willing to do wicked deeds to protect her status. Just how wicked you’ll have to see if you care. But her actions are so chilling and revolting that the sympathy one carried for her earlier in the film is wiped away.
Give credit to the aura that the screenwriter and director create to provide a sense of time and place. But what begins as a film that shows the terrible manner in which women were treated in this era ends in horror that cannot be justified, even if one holds that Katherine has been driven to her actions. A Roadside Attractions release. Reviewed July 14, 2017.