Lady Macbeth opens with one of the more unsettling instances of in medias res this year: a young woman in a white wedding veil, facing away from the camera, tentatively joins the congregation in Joachim Neander's hymn "Praise to the Lord, the Almighty". She soon halts, glancing up at her unseen groom with a look of quiet unease; audiences primed for a Masterpiece Theatre production might feel comfortable they know where this story leads. But then the film cuts to a pseudo-reverse shot and we directly face the bride, framed by what appear to be just two congregants in the sanctuary—this is far from a joyful ceremony full of loved ones and treasured guests. Her discomposure grows as she turns to look at them before resuming singing. But as the stanza finishes and she looks up from the hymnal, the faintest ghost of a smirk crosses her face; and expectations set for a teenager terrified at her own wedding are disconcertingly upended. Lady Macbeth may have the trappings of a costume drama, but beneath the petticoats and refined manners lies a harrowing examination of power, oppression, and revenge—an uprising too misanthropic to properly be called a feminist rejection of the patriarchy.
The (nearly) unknown actress Florence Pugh is superb as Katherine, an intelligent 17-year-old girl in 1860s rural northern England who, on her wedding night, pushes back against her husband's (Paul Hilton) suggestion that she confine herself to the house. "I like the fresh air," she calmly tells him, but his response is a blunt, cold declaration of male authority: take off your nightgown. There's no sex to follow as her husband climbs into bed, leaving her naked and confused: just a setting of barriers for Katherine to remain within. A submissive wife in a loveless marriage is portrayed often enough to be a cliché, but director William Oldroyd is uninterested in repeating those themes; there will be a reckoning, and viewers' initial sympathies may turn out to have been misplaced.
There's great pleasure to be had in Lady Macbeth's formalist cinematography, with symmetrically framed composition and artful mise-en-scène. Fittingly, once Katherine is able to escape the confines of her manor after her husband leaves on a trip, the camera develops a more naturalistic view, loosening its grip as she explores the surrounding wilderness and tests her authority on the farmhands. One, Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), catches her eye, and their resulting encounters resemble less a developing romance than a calculating predator toying with her prey. “I’d rather stop you breathing than have you doubt how I feel,” she tells him after an early rendezvous, and despite her casual delivery and physical affection the statement sends a shiver down the spine. Beneath her self-possession lies a personality both vicious and insistent.
But the affair is not the only place where Katherine asserts her newly expressed dominance; her omnipresent maid Anna (Naomi Ackie) is initially a quiet witness to and later a object of Katherine's desire to control her environment. Anna utterly lacks structural power, and her desperation grows while observing lies, deception and coolly detached violence. Although the film's moral bedrock, she is little able to do more than look on with horrified disapproval—a muted chorus in this Shakespearean tragedy. Here it's little coincidence that her position falls as Katherine's rises; class is a far bigger barrier than any individual.
Despite these strengths, it's unfortunate that Lady Macbeth's narrative falls short in serving its subject. Katherine herself is a bit of a cipher, and her transformation from a submissive bride to cold-blooded monster is undercut by the film's insistence on flattening her character arc: it's less of a tragic descent into darkness and more a journey of inevitability, one that telegraphs its intentions early and in doing so loses some of the potency of its revelations. But these issues little diminish the emotional impact of the cruelty that Katherine inflicts on those around her, and Lady Macbeth serves as a welcome (if disturbing) reminder that the formerly oppressed can sometimes turn into the most brutal oppressors.