A star is born in Lady Macbeth, and her name is Florence Pugh. As Katherine, a young woman sold into a loveless marriage in 19th-century rural England, Pugh is a revelation, a legit talent and surefire best actress Oscar contender who announces her presence with fierce authority.
Pugh's eminently watchable Katherine begins the film as a subservient waif stuck in a marriage to someone who has no interest in her. She acquiesces to her husband's demands – none of them sexual – and in doing so isn't allowed to do much of anything. She can't go outside. She has no friends. She can't go to bed when she wants. She's a kept woman whose happiness is disregarded at every turn; her role is functional rather than necessary, which is a horrible way to live.
It's only when her husband (Paul Hilton) and father-in-law (Christopher Fairbank) leave for business that she begins to come out of her shell. She chats with her maid Anna (Naomi Ackie). She drinks more than she ordinarily would. She even sticks up for Anna when the stable boys bully her. She is the woman of the house, after all.
Then something unexpected happens. One of the horse groomsmen, Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), piques her interest. She piques his interest too. A torrid love affair ensues, and it appears safe because there's no sign of her husband returning. You'll think you know where the story is headed, and you'll be correct to an extent, but how it gets there – and where it goes afterward – you will not see coming, and oh boy is it a doozy.
Shakespeare fans will be disappointed to know this has nothing to do with the Bard's Lady Macbeth, except perhaps for her calculating ways. Rather, writer Alice Birch's screenplay is based on Nikolai Leskov's novel Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, and as I understand it deviates slightly from the book for optimum cinematic effect. This is a good thing – it's the filmmakers' responsibility to make the best movie they can, not to be as faithful to the source material as possible.
What's remarkable about Pugh's performance is how Katherine's character arc feels natural and shocking at the same time. In the beginning Katherine is hopeless and demure, mindful of her social role and fearful of the consequences of expecting anything else. She's still appealing, though, as you sense her suppressed personality waiting to come out. As the story evolves she has numerous awakenings, and as Pugh shows Katherine's passion and desperation to hold onto the only thing she's ever known as happiness, we are enraptured with her performance.
As great as Pugh is, this movie is also a coming-out party for heretofore unknown director William Oldroyd, whose previous work includes only three short films. At 89 minutes, Lady Macbeth is on the short side of feature length, but it's as long as it needs to be.
The dark, dank and depressing aesthetics fit the setting and are appropriate for the harshness of the story. Life is so dull, and seemingly cold and uncomfortable, that it's no wonder Katherine will do anything to hold on to the few pleasures she enjoys.
For our sake, it's a pleasure to watch Lady Macbeth. This is a jolt of dark drama in the midst of mainstream summer, and a welcome sight at that. The film industry better be warned: Hell hath no fury like Florence Pugh.