NEW YORK: “Unsex me here” was Lady Macbeth’s plea to the spirits for manly ferocity in Shakespeare’s tragedy. In “Lady Macbeth,” William Oldroyd’s austere but thick-blooded drama about a young, 19th-century woman’s unrepentant rebellion, the protagonist of has no designs to shed or subdue her already perfectly potent femininity. Having been sold in marriage for some land to a wretched and arid family in rural northern England, Katherine (Florence Pugh) finds herself effectively imprisoned in a drab and creaky house surrounded by foggy, desolate plains. Stay indoors, she’s urged more than once.
Katherine pays these suggestions and others no heed. Out in the fields she scans the landscape like a desperate explorer looking for any sign of life at all.
Among her new family, she might as well be an extraterrestrial. Smooth-skinned, youthful (Pugh was 19 at the time of filming) and fresh, she’s the direct inverse of her craggy and cranky husband Alexander (Paul Hilton) and her even craggier and crankier father-in-law Boris (Christopher Fairbank).
Miserly Boris presides over the estate, ordering Katherine to see to her wifely duties with “more vigor.” At one point he admonishes her, “You have no idea of the damage you can cause.”
Oh, really? Katherine, it turns out, is far more aware of her considerable power for destruction than he.
While they are away, she encounters a charismatic and rowdy farmhand named Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis). They promptly commence an affair that begins audaciously and quickly grows ever more brazen. She makes no effort to hide their very audible lovemaking from the staff – most notably the housemaid Anna (Naomi Ackie) – nor, upon their returns, from the men who would be her keepers.
Vigor? She’s got plenty.
This being 1865, certain roadblocks naturally arise for her and Sebastian’s love affair, but none that Katherine can’t resolve with a bit of poison or something rougher. So reckless is she that she hardly bothers to bury the bodies. She’s got better things to do.
The Shakespeare reference is in name and bloodiness, but is mostly a jumping off point. The tale, slightly shortened here, comes from Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 novel “Lady Macbeth and the Mtsensk District,” which Shostakovich turned into an opera in the ’30s and the Polish filmmaker Andrzej Wajda adapted into the 1962 film “Siberian Lady Macbeth.”
The direction of Oldroyd, a theater veteran making his feature-film debut, from Alice Birch’s intelligently minimal script is spare and economic. It opens with fleeting images of their wedding and, moving quickly into her new life, largely dispenses with backstory. We never even see the house’s exterior – as an inmate wouldn’t know the outside of his prison. We don’t know from where Katherine’s resolute spirit flows, but we know, and feel, the constriction – as tight as the bodice she’s laced into – that suffocates her. One of the more exciting breakthroughs of the year, Pugh’s performance is calm and certain. Her flaunting of propriety is at first almost comic in its boldness, though she carries it to increasingly dark ends.
Questions of her methods surely arise as the body count piles up, but as in a slave rebellion, her righteousness is never in doubt. Team Katherine forever.