Our protagonist, Katherine, is trapped. In an arranged marriage to a weak and bitter man twice her age; in an isolated house out on the moors, where she is repeatedly advised to stay indoors; in the corseted dresses which her maid, Anna, straps her into each morning. Katherine, luminously played by Florence Pugh (who also lit up Carol Morley’s The Falling), is bored.
Set in northern England in 1865, Lady Macbeth has echoes of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights and is as bleak as Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, while managing to be both surprisingly funny and horrifying. It is loosely adapted from the 19th century Russian novella by Nikolai Leskov, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District, which was also made into an opera by Dmitri Shostakovich in the 1930s (and quickly banned by Stalin).
It tells a story of the lethal effects of women’s oppression and rigid class structures. As Katherine makes a series of increasingly devastating choices, the viewer is constantly aware that no good options were ever open to her. She is a force of nature who longs to feel and experience the world, but has effectively been sold into wedlock to a man who seems to have no interest in her. And her determination to have what she wants only leads to destruction.
Both visually and through dialogue the film portrays the characters’ attempts to jostle for position. The politics of who gets to sit at the table and eat together are a running joke — and involve some of the finest cat acting since Inside Llewyn Davis. As Katherine tries to assert herself in the household she mimics the voice and language of her father in law, the brutal mine-owner who arranged her marriage to his son.
As Katherine becomes more forceful and vocal Anna (Naomi Ackie) shrinks away and eventually loses the ability to speak altogether. The question of race runs through the film in interesting ways — several key characters are black. And class interacts with this — from Anna the lady’s maid, who sleeps in the house, to Sebastian the groom, who sleeps on the ground in the outbuildings.
Katherine is not a nice person. When she interrupts a sexual assault upon Anna, Katherine exhibits no sympathy; and as Katherine’s actions become more extreme and utterly terrible, she shows no sign of regret or willingness to take responsibility.
It is impossible to root for her by the end. But nonetheless she is a powerful figure — no matter the ruinous consequences for others, she refuses to give in, fade away or apologise for her desires.