No need to brush up your Shakespeare to feel the thunderbolts coursing through Lady Macbeth. Florence Pugh, in a performance that will soon be legendary, is not playing the Scottish Queen who can’t wash the blood off her hands. It’s northern England where director William Oldroyd (in a sensational feature directing debut) has chosen to set his tale, adapted by playwright Alice Birch from an 1865 Russian novel by Nikolai Leskov called Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District.
Confused? Let Pugh be your guide – she’ll grab you from Scene One. The 21-year-old British powerhouse plays Katherine, a Victorian lass who’s been married off (for the land) by her dad to middle-aged Alexander, a wealthy industrialist’s son (Paul Hilton). In addition to being a sadist, the young man can’t get it up. No sooner does the lady of the house squeeze into a corset than she attracts the attention of Sebastian, a mixed-race servant played with cocky zest by indie singer Cosmo Jarvis. And quicker than you can say Lady Chatterley, Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina, the plot is steaming over with dangerous intrigue and a feminist subtext.
And then the murders start, evoking both the legacy of Macbeth and film noirs ranging from The Big Sleep to The Postman Always Rings Twice. I won’t deny that the film comes close to going off the rails, especially in the final third when motivations are as cloudy as the sky over the moors. But even when Oldroyd loses his directorial grip, Pugh is there to make things right. Not many young actress have that sort of power to command the screen as if by divine right. She dives deep into this terrifically twisted, erotic thriller and makes it matter.