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Film review: Lady Macbeth – Intense and darkly gripping

In Lady Macbeth, Florence Pugh plays a Victorian wife repressed by spouse and society – until she washes her hands of hypocrisy
Florence Pugh in Lady Macbeth

“There’s been an explosion,” a character announces at one point in Lady Macbeth. We don’t see or hear the event, but this intense and darkly gripping Victorian drama doesn’t lack fireworks of its own. Starring Florence Pugh as a young woman unhappily married to a rich landowner in 1860s Northumbria, it’s a combustible mix of sexual repression, violent revenge and romantic abandon.

Lady Macbeth is a deftly assured cinematic debut from theatre director William Oldroyd: a film of unnerving, accumulating tension, punctuated by moments of violence that leave you reeling.

The Shakespearean title is by way of 19th-century Russian writer Nikolai Leskov’s novel Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District, adapted and transferred by Alice Birch to the desolate, wind-scoured moors of the north of England. The lead character is actually called Katherine, whom we first encounter as a bride, being married off to Alexander (Paul Hilton), the middle-aged son of colliery owner Boris (Christopher Fairbank). It’s not a happy occasion: even the singing (mournful as a death-rattle, achingly off-key) is depressing.

And sure enough poor Katherine finds herself trapped in a big, echoey house with these two horrible older men. Alexander’s version of consummating the marriage requires his wife to undress and turn to the wall as he pleasures himself – among other things, this movie is vividly attuned to the weird and kinky rituals that the sexually stifled atmosphere of the age compels people to concoct. Her father-in-law is even worse. A crabby, scowling patriarch (played with relish by Fairbank), he watches Katherine like a hawk, drills her relentlessly on how to behave, and admits to viewing her as yet another of his properties.

This movie is vividly attuned to the weird and kinky rituals that the sexually stifled atmosphere of the age compels people to concoct

But then he’s called away – the damage caused by that explosion requires his attention – and soon afterwards Alexander leaves. Katherine is transformed: having been confined to the house – whose every creak and clunk is amplified by the film’s subtly expressive sound design, a mocking commentary on Katherine’s imprisonment – the young woman throws open the shutters and is free to roam.

Her liberation is sexual too: she takes a lover, groomsman Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis). If this romantic interlude risks cliché – Jarvis has the rugged looks required, but his performance lacks depth – it’s brief, because Katherine’s father-in-law is soon back, and he’s not happy with what his ‘property’ has been doing in his absence.

So begins Katherine’s final transformation: from victim of domestic abuse to someone determined to avenge it. Boris dies in cloudy circumstances, and Katherine is compelled to take action when Alexander comes home – to the sight Katherine having sex with a confused Sebastian.

Although the approach remains spare and austere, the drama becomes increasingly violent, culminating in disquieting brutality. What makes the film especially powerful is the note of Shakespearean ambiguity it sounds: that title is far less misleading than it first seems. Yes, Katherine is turns into something monstrous, but the film meticulously plots the way her actions are implicated in the hypocrisies of the age. It impresses also thanks to the nuanced and expansive range of Florence Pugh’s performance as Katherine. This is an actress you can expect to see a lot more of.

Lady Macbeth is in cinemas from April 28