One of film, literature and mythology’s greatest archetypes gets a spotless new wardrobe in “Lady Macbeth,” a British film about a Russian novel based on the femme fatale of Shakespeare’s Scottish Play.
Calculating, self-serving, willful and cunning, this throwback anti-heroine is a great one to make the case that there’s a little Lady Macbeth in every woman.
Florence Pugh of “The Falling” brings a poker-faced cruelty to Katherine, the title character. But perhaps she wasn’t born that way. We meet her, pert and pretty, veiled and bathed in white, on her wedding day.
But the 19th century Scots family she’s married into is in the business of making monsters, we quickly see. Her husband, Alexander (Paul Hilton of “Wuthering Heights”) is rich, spoiled, cruel and controlling.
“You ought to keep to the house…”
“I like the fresh air.”
“Keep to the HOUSE.”
And as much as enjoys ordering her to remove her night gown — “Take it off!” is his pillow talk — he shows no interest in doing anything other than ordering her about. No consummation, in other words.
Then we meet his father (Christopher Fairbanks, The Broker in “Guardians of the Galaxy”). Boris is an entitled brutal gnome who treats everyone badly and cannot hide his contempt for his new daughter-in-law. He’s a mine owner, and when he sends his son to tidy up the latest disaster, he hisses for Katherine to “resume your duties with more rigor, madam,” when he returns.
A house without books, conversation or music and a life of corsets, cruelty and silence is only interrupted when Katherine barges in on the servants having a nude frolic. And the swarthy rake Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis) catches her eye and cockily realizes he’s caught it.
Blame it on Victorian era literary tropes or Russian sexism — the Nikolai Leskov novel, which also inspired an opera, was published in 1865 — but their “courtship” falls well within the bounds of sexual assault.
As was common in cross-class melodramas of that age, the assault dissolves into lusty love-making. The moral of such immoral tales? All she really needed was a good…servicing.
Katherine is all smiles, filling the big, empty mansion with kisses and gasps of sexual desire. Then the old man comes home, and her manipulations take on a murderous air.
Casting this “Lady” so young isn’t a great handicap, even though every actress isn’t as accomplished at playing a man-eater at 20 as say the Great Natalie Dormer was. There’s little Showtime-level heat to the sex scenes, and one does wonder what these two from different classes (and races) would talk about after the mating.
The father and son possess Dickensian cruelty, but the script, performances and William Oldroyd’s direction make plain that this isn’t about just desserts, it’s about obstacles that Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth might have solved, but with a lot more spilled blood.
As leads, Pugh and Jarvis are more competent than compelling. Oldroyd springs murders on us by surprise, save for one instance, which will haunt you long after the credits have rolled.
But the climax is deflating and lets down a fabulously grey woods, heather and moors production design and the wicked promise contained in the story’s premise — that there’s a little Lady Macbeth in every woman, at least as far as men are concerned.
MPAA Rating: R for some disturbing violence, strong sexuality/nudity, and language
Cast: Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis, Paul Hilton, Naomi Ackie, Christopher Fairbank
Credits:Directed by William Oldroyd, script by Alice Birch, based on the Nikolai Leskov novel “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.” A Roadside Attractions release.
Running time: 1:29