In a canny revision of one of literature's top nasty women, William Oldroyd's Lady Macbeth brings us a Gothic tale of a shackled young wife turned angry bird, wreaking havoc on all who cross her and plenty who don't. Set in rural Victorian England, the movie, which filters Shakespeare's toxic bride through a 19th-century novella by Nikolai Leskov, minces neither word nor image laying out the forces that conspire to warp young Katherine Lester (Florence Pugh). We meet her in a chilly Northern England church, a dewy but apprehensive 17-year-old innocent newly married off — sold, actually — to a much older husband, Alexander (Paul Hilton).
Quickly revealed as a drunken lout, the husband takes his cue from his father, Boris (Christopher Fairbank), a snarling rodent who subjects Katherine to arbitrary humiliations in the name of wifely devotion and Christian propriety. But fire runs through the veins of this girl, who's played by Pugh with a gimlet stare and head-tossing, impatient candor that recalls Kate Winslet. Short and sturdy with a mobile mouth that signals all kinds of potential, this Kate is built to prevail, even when forced by her husband to strip naked for his impotent pleasure.
For a while Katherine obeys, her chestnut mane tamed into a severe bun as her maidservant, Anna (Naomi Ackie), ropes her into tight stays and a hooped blue dress that offers a lone flash of color amid the coldly neutral tones of the home (the film's design and spare soundtrack are at once beautiful and achingly suggestive of sensory deprivation) in which her only function is to sit in silent, enforced idleness. Katherine's masters have not reckoned on her uncontainable willfulness, which brings her into erotic contact with a surly young farmhand named Sebastian (British singer-songwriter Cosmo Jarvis).
The wild terrain may put you in mind of Wuthering Heights, but this is a whole other kind of Gothic. Emily Bronte was never at liberty to vent the carnal steam given off by these two rebels, or its wider social implications. The rules that Katherine and Sebastian flout with growing brazenness are not just those of social class — the meat and potatoes of British period drama — but also of gender and race. That Sebastian and Anna are played by black actors will turn out to have a political dimension (Downton Abbey this is not), yet Alice Birch's crisply particular screenplay never belabors the point. Nor are we allowed to mistake Katherine for some kind of feminist riot grrl, though she had the spirit and the guts to become one were it not for the rotting of her soul at the hands of her father-in-law the sadist and, it's implied, others before him.
Scene for increasingly horrifying scene, Lady Macbeth is about the making of a psychopath for whom bullying and betrayal have become learned behavior. The spotlight remains without sentimentality on Katherine and on the falling dominoes of violence that attend her efforts to sustain ownership of her illicit passion. "Those to whom evil is done/Do evil in return," wrote W.H. Auden in his famous poem, September 1, 1939. He was talking about unscrupulous men of power, but also about the way all cruelty works its way deep into the psyche and turns victims into oppressors. In repeated shots of a curving banister in the home Katherine now commands we may see the twisted path she has taken to her pyrrhic victories. At the end of Lady Macbeth she sits on a chaise facing the camera, dressed and coiffed to the nines as we saw her early on. Only now her dress is not electric blue but dour grey, and home has become another kind of prison altogether.