Taking its title from Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District, the novella by Nikolia Leskov, rather than the character by Shakespeare (or, indeed, the wife of the actual King Macbeth of Scotland), this is a tough, bleak but ultimately compelling film whose success comes from its pared down storytelling, its beautiful set-design and direction and, more importantly, a performance for the ages from Florence Pugh.
Let’s just say the plot doesn’t have many laughs. On the rare occasions the characters do laugh it is because they are committing acts of particular cruelty. The estate labourers have a chuckle because they are sexually abusing the maid. Katherine Lester (Pugh) has been, following a very reluctant marriage, been put in something approaching charge, as her domineering men have abandoned her. She has been friends with Anna the abused servant. However, with her own attempt at a laugh, she sides not with her female maid but with the estate labourers. Or at least the one with whom she can begin a passionate, and obviously twisted (it’s that kind of film), sexual relationship. This decision made the destruction of everyone ensues. Calmly shown and revealed in fleeting moments of action in amongst the silences, the looks and the occasional flashes of light that pour, unexpectedly into the house.
Lady Macbeth looks mostly like a series Hammershoi paintings. Tableaux in intriguingly-lit rooms, people moving tentatively along corridors or almost out of sight. The story moves almost casually. If people were saying or doing nicer things it would be a particularly well-realised period piece. That this brutal work is always watchable owes much to its central performance. With a simplicity of movement but a defiance of tone, Florence Pugh gives Katherine Lester the complexity the role needs. Her motivation is always to secure the privilege that she sees others enjoy and we’re left in no doubt that others would brutalise her as she brutalises others. It’s very much a world of take what you can before others take it from you.
So, a rather brilliant little film. But not one I’ll be hurrying to watch again.