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Movie review: 'Lady Macbeth' is to die for

Colin Covert
Star Tribune (Minneapolis) (TNS)

We're seeing a good amount of costume and candlelight noir lately, turning period dramas of illicit unions and scandal and murder into glorious pulp gold. Rachel Weisz in "My Cousin Rachel" and Nicole Kidman in "The Beguiled" can welcome bloodstained Florence Pugh, starring in the compact but perfectly formed "Lady Macbeth." It is to die for.

Indirectly inspired by but not reflecting Shakespeare's story of backstabbing Scottish social climbers, this is a Victorian saga of private lives and ugly deaths in the bleak moors of northeast England.

The aristocrats center stage are sympathetic teenage bride Katherine (Pugh), Alexander Lester (Paul Hilton), her chilly middle-aged husband, and his pompous, oppressive father Boris (Christopher Fairbank), who brokered the match simply to engineer the prompt birth of an heir to his family's sizable fortune.

As the upper-class marriage she entered with optimism becomes a downward spiral of suffering, Katherine comes to feel literally caged in her new life. Ordered to stay indoors by Boris lest vigorous activity delay her impregnation, she's a prisoner in the miser's minimal estate. Dressed in corset-tightened crinolines, surrounded by servants, nature-loving Katherine has nothing to do but stare out the windows in frustration.

Florence Pugh stars in "Lady Macbeth," opening Friday, Aug. 18, at Small Star Art House.


Bearing a child might bring a new focus, but that seems unlikely. Despite Katherine's heart-faced beauty, revealed in depth as Alexander orders her to strip and stand facing the bedroom wall, he is impotent and at least as resentful of the unwanted marriage as she is. He finds excuses to travel out of the manor house, leaving her with no company beyond her handmaiden Anna (Naomi Ackie) and the ever-watchful house cat, which Katherine actually prefers.

Starved for pleasure and excitement, she finds them in the form of Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), a handsome, rebellious young stablehand, and consumes him like a banquet feast. Until that point, no one has touched her in the film. Suddenly the old house doesn't feel nearly so confining, and headstrong Katherine rejecting the constrictive social mores of the 1860s seems to be essentially righteous.

But is it? As the plot thickens, the leading lady reveals more inner venom drip by drip. Viewers might initially interpret her affair as a feminist act, the work of a vulnerable, victimized woman who has taken control of her life, someone we want to support. But as her adultery with hulky Sebastian becomes more brazen and tongues wag, the mood paradoxically shifts.

Director William Oldroyd's film hypnotically turns the spotlight on the amoral side of the seductress we thought we admired, dramatizing the story with impeccable flair. In time, as each transgression leads to a darker misdeed, even passionate, powerful Sebastian is awash in dread that they are on a doomed path. The manner in which the mistress of the house treats him bears uncomfortable parallels to repeating the orders Alexander barked at her. He is less the man of the house than her property. If her husband and his dad are resentful, she has devious ways of dealing with them.

Pugh, who was 18 during the filming, is ravishingly good in this knockout performance. She makes us feel complicit with Katherine's petulant revenge at first, sharing her sense of spiteful enjoyment. When she begins peeling back her socially correct veneer, she reveals levels of wickedness that chill the blood. It's an audacious turn, introducing us to a marvelously promising new film talent.

Oldroyd, who worked exclusively in theater earlier, has packed his debut film with well-chosen members. Playwright Alice Birch's spare dialogue creates a mood of thought-churning anxiety wonderfully matched by the music-free sound design, which doesn't spoon-feed viewers musical cues about how to feel. It's well served by Ari Wegner's starkly gorgeous camerawork, as well, a painterly use of light, color and composition that says so much about the interior worlds of the characters as their environments.

The astute manner in which important supporting roles as servants were cast is racially sensitive in a way that recalls the horror show social commentary of "Get Out."

By the ambiguous finale, you may be uncertain what you feel about every character, including the cat. Don't watch this "Lady Macbeth" to cram for high school English class, but definitely don't miss it. To quote the play, "something wicked this way comes" ... "sleep no more."

3.5 out of 4 stars
Unrated by the MPAA.