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D: William Oldroyd / 89m

Cast: Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis, Paul Hilton, Naomi Ackie, Christopher Fairbank, Golda Rosheuvel, Anton Palmer

Rural England, 1865. A harsh time and place to live if you’re a woman, and especially if you’re a young woman entering into a marriage with a man you don’t know, and all because you were part and parcel of a land sale. That’s the fate of Katherine (Pugh), a farmer’s daughter who finds herself the wife of local landowner, Alexander Lester (Hilton), and living in his father’s house. Forbidden to go outside the house and expected to maintain a strict schedule in relation to running the house, Katherine is less than happy with the way her life is playing out. Her husband won’t even fulfill his duties in the marital bed, content instead to make Katherine strip naked and face the wall while he pleasures himself. And as if his indifference wasn’t enough, it’s compounded by her father-in-law’s ironic disapproval at her not being able to provide a son and heir. All the company she has is that of one of the servants, Anna (Ackie), who is the epitomy of subjection.

It’s only when both men leave on separate business trips that Katherine is able to explore the surrounding countryside and take back some aspects of the life she used to enjoy. She also encounters Sebastian (Jarvis), one of her husband’s workers. She’s attracted to him immediately, and he notices this. Soon after he comes to the house to see her, and though she rebuffs his advances at first, she succumbs readily and the pair embark on an affair. When her father-in-law (Fairbank) returns, he is aware of the unseemly relationship between Katherine and Sebastian, and he quickly berates her for it. Treating her even more harshly than he did before, and giving Sebastian a beating, Katherine determines to ensure that her affair can continue. To this end, the old man meets an untimely end, and Katherine installs Sebastian as the de facto man of the house. Some time passes, and then Alexander does return home, and though he knows about his wife’s duplicity, his plan to deal with her doesn’t go as expected…

Alexander’s return is the culmination of the movie’s second act, and it comes at a time when Katherine’s natural character has become somewhat exposed through her actions and her baser emotions. The viewer is beginning to understand that beneath the lustful, all-encompassing passion she feels for Sebastian, there lurks something that’s a little more sinister, and a little more discomfiting. Flashes of this have been seen up until now, but if this transposed Lady Macbeth of the wild English countryside (the movie was shot in Northumberland, and is an adaptation of the novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District by Nikolai Leskov) has anything to say about its central character then it’s simply this: beware of how you treat her, for she isn’t one to forgive. Now whether this is due to madness brought on by an aversion to solitude, or is part of her natural temperament and she will do anything to protect herself, that’s down to the viewer to decide. But what the viewer can be certain of is that Katherine will go to whatever lengths she deems necessary to maintain the life she wants. And this we discover at the end of the second act, and well into the third, where her sense of self-preservation becomes entirely twisted and goads her into doing something truly horrible.

All this passion and reckless abandonment of the accepted social norms and proprieties of the period is underlined by the stark severity of life in the Lester household, a place of cold, airy rooms – well-lit, but encouraging little warmth – and the even chillier nature of its male inhabitants, whose sense of puritan endeavour involves mocking and restraining the lives of others. It’s into this unforgiving patrician, and God-fearing environment that Katherine finds herself thrust without the benefit of any say in the matter. It’s this unfairness of place and position that allows Katherine to gain the viewer’s sympathy, and when she embarks on her affair with Sebastian, it’s good to see her find true affection – and love – even though it’s obvious there’s not going to be a “happy ever after”. And so it proves, with the patriarchal society she struggles against continuously, circling round her like hawks, ready to swoop down and punish her for her perceived impudence and “whorish” behaviour.

With the milieu firmly and unforgivingly established – there’s no better evocation of the social shackles Katherine is forced to endure than the sight of her sitting on a divan waiting for her husband to come home – director William Oldroyd is free to encourage and draw out a mesmerising performance from the twenty-one year old Pugh that is one of the most poised and impressive of 2016. She lets the audience know exactly what Katherine is thinking and feeling throughout, and reveals a maturity of approach to building the character that is even more extraordinary when you consider that after The Falling (2014), this is only her second feature (it also makes her next appearance in The Commuter (2018) seem like something of a backward step). So good is she that sometimes, and no matter what else is going on in a scene, the viewer is drawn to her like a moth to a flame. Passionate or icy-cold in her dealings with the other characters, Pugh ensures that Katherine remains endlessly fascinating, and a character you can love or hate or sympathise with or fear with equal intensity.

Pugh is ably supported by Jarvis as the easily manipulated (at first) Sebastian, his initial devil-may-care attitude more and more eroded the deeper he becomes embroiled in Katherine’s refusal to give up on their affair. There’s an element of Mellors from Lady Chatterley’s Lover about the characterisation, but as the story progresses that too fades away, and it’s not long before, like him, you can see that it’s not going to work out well for him. Ackie is on equally good form as Anna, the maid who retreats into silence when it all gets too much for her to deal with, while Hilton and Fairbank, though good in their roles, are a little too one-note – unrelentingly nasty, that is – in their portrayals (though this is down to the script than any intention of their own). Still, Oldroyd holds it all together by tightening the increasing suspense of just how far Katherine will go, and with cinematographer Ari Wegner ensures that the wild, sprawling moorland serves as a fine backdrop to the emotional upheavals occurring within the Lester household.

Rating: 8/10 – a gripping, emotionally charged tale of lust, madness and murder, Lady Macbeth is anchored by a superb performance from Pugh, and a chilly atmosphere that soon becomes as claustrophobic for the viewer as it is for the characters; a violent tragedy of emotions, it’s a movie that carries a rigorous beauty about it, and which remains absorbing from start to finish.

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