A recent New York Times headline declared, "Lady Macbeth Kills the Bonnet Drama." That's hyperbole: If a single gritty costume drama could "kill" the genre of staid, comfy period pieces set in elegant English country houses, we might have stopped seeing them in theaters around the time of Persuasion (1995), the grimiest Jane Austen adaptation.
That said, anyone seeking "comfy" or "elegant" should avoid Lady Macbeth, a twisted little fable about cruelty and power that just happens to be set in the Victorian era. Directed by theater veteran William Oldroyd, in his feature film debut, it's a severely minimalist work — elliptical in its transitions, light on dialog and almost devoid of music. But its silences have oppressive power.
Almost all of the action takes place in the desolate, sparely furnished country house where protagonist Katherine (Florence Pugh), a teenage bride in an arranged match, is essentially imprisoned. A repeated shot setup finds her parked on her parlor settee, corseted and ready for another day of enforced idleness. (Her husband and father-in-law, both decades her senior, have ordered her to stay indoors.) She faces us head-on in these shots, only her expression changing as the film progresses — and oh, does it change. From docile discontent to seething frustration to ice-cold guile.
This is no adaptation of Shakespeare's play; the source is Nikolai Leskov's 1865 novella "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk," which imagines the famous character's ruthlessness in a more contemporary setting. Think Madame Bovary, but nastier. Emma Bovary treasured her romantic illusions; if Katherine has any, we don't learn of them. Nor does she have a sweet fool of a husband — hers, when he's around, treats her like a masturbation aid or a piece of furniture.
What Katherine does have is a teenager's ironclad will to make her life a little more fun. When the men are away, she meets handsome bad boy Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), a groom on the estate, and soon she's living her own little R-rated hoop-skirt version of Twilight. Their bliss is on a collision course with reality, but Katherine has no intention of going quietly back to wifely submission. Her glower tells us, accurately, that there will be blood.
While ego-driven Katherine has no more psychological depth than a Heather in Heathers, her story resonates — first because her plight evokes our empathy, second because she proceeds to take our empathy and stomp on it. And third because Pugh gives a star-making performance, rich in imperious charisma and telling nuance. It's hard for us not to sympathize with Katherine a little longer than we should.
Another key character is well acted but not as well handled; Katherine's maid, Anna (Naomi Ackie), serves as a viewer surrogate, watching with horror as events unfold. She also serves to remind viewers that people of color lived in Victorian England, and that there are worse positions in this society than Katherine's cosseted misery. Yet, because her motives remain cloudy at pivotal points, Anna ends up being more of a symbol than a forceful character in her own right.
With the icy inevitability of a true-crime drama, Lady Macbeth demonstrates the folly of trying to turn a person into a possession; deprived of the freedom to be fully human, Katherine becomes a monster. She wouldn't be at all out of place on Hulu's "The Handmaid's Tale," another drama that conclusively establishes the compatibility between bonnet wearing and murder. Both remind us that there's nothing all that innocent about wanting to turn back the clock to a "simpler time."