Lady Macbeth has something going for it that few films manage these days: an element of surprise. And I don't mean jump-scares -- although the story goes into a direction where you might start to expect them. This movie ended with me thinking that, in a way, it is a horror film.
It begins, though, much like any 19th-century period drama. Katherine (a stellar Florence Pugh) is married off like property, to a man who, for some reason, will not have sex with her. Katherine lives with both her husband and her father-in-law, the latter being increasingly frustrated with her not performing her "wifely duties." They guy hates his father arguably more than Katherine does. Things get odd pretty early on: Katherine's husband clearly finds her attractive, if he asks her to strip and stand facing against the wall while he sits in a chair in their bedroom and jerks off. But, why? Is he refusing to impregnate his wife just to spite his father? I never could quite figure this out.
Both the husband and father-in-law leave the estate for an extended period of time, leaving Katherine to get a taste of independence. She falls in love with Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), a worker on the estate who is much closer to her own age. This ignites a passion no one had any idea she had. From here on, this woman goes to some stunning lengths in her quest to keep Sebastian in her life, and in her bed.
Neither of these people are particularly worth rooting for, mind you. It seems in the beginning like Katherine is to be the hero of this story, but that's not quite how it is. Neither is it the case with Sebastian, who is introduced under rather shady circumstances: he and his colleagues have snatched the maid, Anna (Naomi Ackie), stripped her, and have her suspended from a stable ceiling inside a sheet. Katherine walks in on this, sees Sebastian, and it's like psycho-love at first sight.
Anna is arguably the only character worthy of sympathy. Things don't exactly go well for her at any point, though the same could be said of any of these characters. Lady Macbeth takes some truly dark turns, one after another, going to surprising depths.
It's truly compelling nonetheless. Even when little is going on, you can't take your eyes off this movie, or in particular off of Florence Pugh, who is a formidable talent. I want to see her in more things.
Director William Oldroyd refuses to engage in hand-holding, with slightly mixed results. Events occur that the characters appear to understand, but all the details of which are not revealed to the audience much later. I was slightly confused a few times. But the lead performance is so great, and the scenery so lush, this is easy to forgive.
And if nothing else, I have to respect a movie that successfully redefines its own terms as it goes along, and still manages to succeed on those terms. Lady Macbeth, both the woman and this movie, is genuinely disturbing. Even anyone who feels like she's on their side should watch their back.