LA Film Festival: Florence Pugh shines in the Victorian tragedy ‘Lady Macbeth’

Florence Pugh stars as a young woman trapped in a loveless marriage in the 1865 period drama “Lady Macbeth.” It’s her first leading movie role and the debut feature film directed by British theater veteran William Oldroyd. (Photo courtesy Roadside Attractions)
Florence Pugh stars as a young woman trapped in a loveless marriage in the 1865 period drama “Lady Macbeth.” It’s her first leading movie role and the debut feature film directed by British theater veteran William Oldroyd. (Photo courtesy Roadside Attractions)
Cosmo Jarvis and Florence Pugh in “Lady Macbeth” (Photo courtesy Roadside Attractions)
Cosmo Jarvis and Florence Pugh in “Lady Macbeth” (Photo courtesy Roadside Attractions)

There’s been a rash of 19th century erotic thrillers this season. The likes of “The Beguiled” and “My Cousin Rachel,” however, look like tea parties compared to “Lady Macbeth.”

The first feature directed by British theater wiz William Oldroyd is also, by far, the most aesthetically severe and artistically accomplished of this bunch. Bathed though it is in rough behavior and raw sexuality, “Lady Macbeth” maintains a minimalist discipline that chills the bone even while the action onscreen boils the blood.

And no, it’s not Shakespeare. The film is an adaptation of Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 novella “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District”; Shostakovich made a pretty good opera out of the same material. No singing allowed here, however, as Oldroyd and screenwriter Alice Birch have shifted the action from Russia to a chilly English country estate made to feel extra icy by religious prudery, loveless marriage and patriarchal privilege gone amok.

The film opens with 17-year-old Katherine (Florence Pugh, a real find) unhappily getting married to 40-year-old sourpuss Alexander (Paul Hilton). She’s basically been bought for him as part of a land deal or something, and despite a resigned desire on her part to make the most of their wedding night, all he wants to do is look at her spectacular naked body, not touch it.

This pattern repeats itself for some while, and Katherine’s frustration is compounded by the fact that Alexander and his even more hateable father Boris (Christopher Fairbank) forbid her from leaving their big, Spartan mansion. Oldroyd somehow makes palpable boredom fascinating, while Pugh speaks — no, more like radiates — volumes while just sitting in the sitting room, quietly corseted.

But then the old guys go away on business, Katherine makes a beeline for the moors, and is soon taking pages from Lady Chatterley with the rougish farmhand Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis) like there’s no tomorrow. Which there may not be once the men of the manor get back, but Katherine has plans for them. Metaphorically speaking, of course, she’s the type who’d brush up on her James M. Cain along with her D.H. Lawrence.

It’s been awhile since sex scenes in a literary production have been as copiously convincing as Jarvis and Pugh’s are here. It’s been, perhaps, even longer since an utter sociopath like Katherine has been presented with so much genuine sympathy. Pugh is a revelation, so stoic as a victim, unleashed as a lover and calculating as a survivor, yet still able to convince us she’s a teenager, however fast she’s developing beyond her years.

Colorblind casting — or is it? — of some other key roles adds intriguing racial dimensions to “Lady Macbeth’s” strict gender and class dynamics, reminding us that, however different things might have been in England at the time, the story does take place during the last year of our Civil War. Yet that, like other key themes and motivations in the movie, are left for us to interpret, not to be lectured about by the filmmakers.

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The only unmistakable element of “Lady Macbeth” is passion, the driver and destroyer of everything even in, and perhaps most potently during, the repressive Victorian Era.

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Bob Strauss

Reach the author at rstrauss@scng.com or follow Bob on Twitter: @bscritic.