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Lady Macbeth

Hell is murky, but the rugged, windswept landscapes of Northumberland are grimmer still in director William Oldroyd's impressive debut feature. Adapted by scriptwriter Alice Birch from Nikolai Leskov's 19th-century Russian novella, Lady Macbeth Of The Mtsensk, this gripping tragedy resets the sex-fuelled skulduggery to Victorian England, where women are treated as commodities by glowering husbands. Disobedience is punishable with retribution and humiliation behind closed doors, where bruises can be concealed beneath corsets or voluminous gowns. The anti-heroine of Lady Macbeth, portrayed with scorching intensity by 19-year-old Florence Pugh, openly defies these well-worn social conventions to pursue her own selfish agenda, leaving devastation and a mounting body count in her wake. When her snarling father-in-law demands, "Where's your husband?" she meets his coldness with venom and snaps, "Wherever you put him." Pugh is beguiling in the demanding central role, replete with an unwavering accent, and she commits fearlessly to breathless sex scenes with co-star Cosmo Jarvis that light the fuse on explosive desires, percolating beneath the surface. When one of the characters sees through this facade of youthful naivete and tearfully exclaims, "She's a disease", a cold prickle of fear traces down our spines at the likely fatal consequences. Teenage bride Katherine (Pugh) is sold by her father as part of a property deal and she is consigned to a miserable, loveless marriage to a swarthy brute called Alexander (Paul Hilton), whose father Boris (Christopher Fairbank) runs the local colliery. Their first night together is devoid of passion and Katherine submits to her husband's demands. "Take your dress off and face the wall," he barks, admiring the nubile flesh of his quivering possession. When Alexander and Boris are unexpectedly called away to deal with an explosion at the colliery, Katherine seeks out excitement in the company of rebellious groomsman Sebastian (Jarvis), whose cocksure swagger kindles sparks of an extra-marital affair. Katherine brazenly flaunts Sebastian in front of the other staff, including her maid Anna (Naomi Ackle), unconcerned by the potential stain on her reputation. Boris and Alexander return unexpectedly and the forbidden lovers snigger in the face of shame to forge a murderous pact that will allow them to retain their lofty position in the household. "You know I shan't be parted from you, Sebastian," gushes Katherine to her paramour. "I'd rather stop you breathing than have you doubt how I feel." Filmed on location in County Durham, Lady Macbeth is largely faithful to the plotting of the source text, apart from an emotionally chilly denouement that showcases Pugh's mastery of her character's poisonous emotions. Supporting performances are solid and Oldroyd spares his leading cast few blushes in scenes of wanton carnal desire. Production design, including Holly Waddington's costumes, evokes the period with stylish restraint.