“Lady Macbeth” will be released in U.S. theaters on July 14. This artful film won’t have mass market distribution, so you’ll have to drive to the big city to see it or wait until it streams. Before you think “Shakespeare” and “out, out damned spot,” switch gears. Although she shares some of the same malevolent traits as the Bard’s, this Lady Macbeth is based on a nineteenth-century Russian novella by Nikolai Leskov “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk.”
If you’re willing to settle in slowly and be challenged, “Lady Macbeth” offers an intriguing look at the complexities of passion and desire. Economical in tone to the point of being stiffly reserved and bleak of spirit, this film can be heavy, downright troublesome, at times.
Action involves murder, violent beatings, and very mature bedroom scenes. Given the circumstances, all these elements coalesce into an absorbing glimpse at a situation that’s both timeless and tied to a particular time and place. The pace, the atmosphere, and the slow exposure of Katherine’s complex psychology make “Lady Macbeth” a gripping tale you won’t soon forget.
The film moves Leskov’s setting to a remote corner of rural northern England. Played with an exquisite and splendid evil quality, Lady Katherine Macbeth (Florence Pugh) finds herself in an untenable situation. Having been sold with a piece of property to a man many years her senior, she’s forced into a loveless marriage. Husband Alexander (Paul Hilton) and his horrible father Boris (Christopher Fairbank) run the estate with cruel discipline.
For a young woman bursting with vigor, Katherine’s boring, corseted life grows drearier by the day. Alexander’s frequent absences and Boris’s admonitions to stay inside and behave, only make her angry in her powerlessness. Then an encounter with Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), the stable hand, changes everything.
Their chemistry knows no bounds. With Alexander’s long absences, opportunities for hot trysts become more and more frequent and involved. Katherine and Sebastian work a spell on each other to the point of obsession.
Suspense derives from the dangers of the two being caught in their deception. They make no effort to hide their affair from Anna (Naomi Ackie), Katherine’s servant who sees it all.
When things escalate, choices must be made, and Katherine will reach deep to make them.
She will determine her own destiny and that of people closest to her. Her iron will and survival instincts take things to the edge of sanity. Moral judgments don’t exist in her world. She does what she has to do. Whether it’s for the sake of love or for something else far more sinister, the results will be the same. Leskov and director Wiliam Oldroyd clearly know their Shakespeare.
Marilyn Robitaille has been writing film reviews for the Empire-Tribune since 1999.