In 1865 England, young Katherine (Florence Pugh) is forced to marry the distant and inattentive Alexander Lester (Paul Hilton), with nothing to do besides sit around the house all day and wait for him to come home. She soon starts a passionate affair with the estate farmhand Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis) but as more and more people keep getting in the way, including her husband, his cruel, scornful father (Christopher Fairbank) and an unexpected child visitor, it soon becomes clear that Katherine will do absolutely anything to get rid of those who would stand in her way and to keep hold of her young lover.
At the very centre of the film, Florence Pugh is exceptional, a truly mesmerising performance that is pretty much guaranteed to keep all eyes focused on her. As Katherine, she starts off as something of an innocent figure, letting us feel something for her as she’s forced into marriage, made to suffer several indignities at the hands of her unfeeling husband and father in law and confined to the house 24/7, dissuaded from venturing outside, simply made to sit around all day. It’s important that the audience is allowed to take an interest in her wellbeing early because as she begins the affair and goes on to commit increasingly dastardly acts, she starts to become something different, taking control of events as she commits herself to being with her new lover, determined to go to any and all lengths to remove those who would stand in her way.
Pugh is really quite something in the title role because she conveys so much sinister feeling with very little; Katherine is cold, cunning and confident, a truly remarkable screen villain and Pugh completely owns the character (sometimes seeming a little like Hailee Steinfeld at certain points). For me, she’s that kind of wicked, deliciously evil villain who you just can’t help but root for and, despite the callous things that she does (though the father in law sure got what was coming to him), I was under her spell for the duration. But alongside all of this, Katherine isn’t totally devoid of feeling as there is a brief, but powerful, moment when she temporarily seems to be forming a connection with the troublesome child who she wants out of the way and she also shows despair after her very final act.
And with her, the players who make up the small supporting cast are really great as well.
The main component of the plot is the infidelity storyline and while this is certainly nothing original in and of itself, the development of the central affair is extremely compelling, steamy and always full of danger and unpredictability. There was always the temptation for Lady MacBeth to go down the whole “Princess and the stableboy” avenue but this pivotal relationship is wholly unique and, as it’s title would suggest, contains plenty of plotting, machiavellian motives, murderous intentions and a central female figure who will stop at nothing to get what she wants. There also seems to be an element of Bronte in the film (especially given the numerous shots of “them thar moors”) and what’s great about Lady MacBeth is that it may use a certain Shakespeare/Bronte foundation but proves itself to be far bolder and risqué, something far more wicked, devilish, mysterious and uncompromising.
There’s a distinct lack of music throughout the film (save for the end credits) and this definitely works in the film’s favour; in scenes where it looks like not much is happening, the inescapable silence ensures that your eyes are glued to the screen and that you’re always on the lookout for something to happen. The overall direction is admirable because, even in moments that are relatively pedestrian, the film maintains an ideal, gripping pace and all of what’s happening on screen is always so fascinating, often mysterious. The mood is constantly very tense, often erotically charged, and there’s nary a dull moment to be found in its refreshing 89 minute runtime.