Director William Oldroyd’s debut feature “Lady Macbeth” returns, again and again, to a single shot: Florence Pugh, as Katherine, a young woman forced into a loveless marriage with a sexually dysfunctional and abusive heir to a coal mine, sits perfectly still on a couch, smoothing the thick folds of her blue gown and staring straight ahead. Her face betrays no sign of the pent-up rage, wild lust or coldblooded determination that, alternately, motivate her. A cat jumps down from a cabinet. She remains motionless.
This image, this woman, is familiar. She is Catherine Earnshaw of “Wuthering Heights,” swearing “I am Heathcliff.” She is Emma Bovary and Lady Chatterley: passionate and stifled. And, of course, she’s Lady Macbeth, asking the spirits to turn her breast milk into poison. (Although there are other parallels with “Macbeth,” the film is not, strictly speaking, an adaptation of the Shakespearean tragedy.) Oldroyd’s brilliance (and Pugh’s) is to probe this age-old archetype — the Gothic antiheroine, the adulteress — and find pathos and cruelty. It’s also to uncover the complex web of hierarchies — of race and class, as well as gender — that ensnare and empower her.
Adapted by screenwriter Alice Birch from “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk,” an 1865 novella by Russian author Nikolai Leskov, “Lady Macbeth” opens in a 19th-century English countryside of dense forests and raging winds. But most of the film’s action takes place inside the stark manor house of Katherine’s father-in-law, where every object — and every resident — has its place. Power passes among the members of the household like a poison arrow, its path shifting but its aim true.
Early in the film, after his father mocks him at dinner, Katherine’s new husband (Paul Hilton) orders her to stand still while he masturbates. “Don’t smile,” he says. “Take off your dress. Face the wall.” Later, Katherine, after discovering her husband’s workers humiliating Anna, a black maid, gives them a similar order: “Don’t smile. Face the wall.” (She’s angry, by the way, not because of what they’re doing, but because they’re doing it on her husband’s time.)
When Katherine begins an affair with one of those workers, the dark-skinned Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), it seems as though their passion might upend the rigid hierarchy of the house. We watch Pugh become more confident and more sensual, her eyes and skin growing brighter, her laugh more defiant. When her stern father-in-law (Christopher Fairbank) asks where her husband has gone, she shrugs: “Wherever you put him,” she says, raising an eyebrow. But as Katherine resorts to increasingly desperate means to sustain her relationship with Sebastian, her irreverence morphs into ruthlessness. Rather than upend hierarchy, she enforces it, controlling and crushing those less powerful than her.
Anna, sensitively played by Naomi Ackie, acts as the film’s conscience and Katherine’s foil. Like a reflection in a funhouse mirror, she shrinks as Katherine grows — and becomes more ferocious. And as the mistress expresses her desires and demands, the maid becomes mute, traumatized into silence. And as Katherine’s behavior becomes more extreme, Anna can only channel her fear and rage into the dough she kneads in the kitchen. Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth frames unnamed servants for Duncan’s murder, placing bloody daggers on their sleeping bodies. Anna, without speaking a word, gives voice to their suffering. Vaulting ambition topples not only kings, it seems, but also the powerless.
In “Lady Macbeth,” Oldroyd never allows us to look away from the horror, focusing, in long, intense shots, on the faces of his characters as they suffer. But he turns our attention, often, toward subtler actions: white curtains fluttering, a spoon gently tapping a glass, that prowling cat. These delicate movements, juxtaposed against violent acts, force us to consider the brutality embedded in the quiet domesticity of the manor house.
R. At area theaters. Contains some disturbing violence, coarse language and strong sexuality and nudity. 89 minutes.