William Oldroyd’s creative background lies in the theatre, and in what is just his second film as director, he takes on the challenge of adapting Nikolai Leskov’s novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District into a British period drama. Simply shortening the title to Lady Macbeth, the plot follows young bride Katherine (Florence Pugh) who is forced into a loveless, violent marriage with Alexander (Paul Hilton). Trapped in the huge house she was bought with, she rebels against her wicked father-in-law Boris (Christopher Fairbank) and his rules when she embarks on a passionate affair with stable-boy Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), and goes to great lengths to escape the existence that has befallen her.
With one location and just a handful of characters to play with, the narrative is as tight and restrictive as the Victorian corsets that Katherine squeezes herself into. The contained nature of the story works to the film’s benefit as a rhythm is established by a repetition day-to-day routines. This steady, measured pacing combines with cleverly understated sound design to give an eerie stillness, providing a backdrop for a careful study of Katherine’s cunning plan to use her privileged position of power to her advantage. Florence Pugh puts in a remarkably transformative turn, and as Katherine’s actions plummet to despicable depths, her performance continually reaches new heights.
Oldroyd’s uses his experience to spin a boldly beguiling twist on the historical drama genre with Lady Macbeth, and his simple but effective directorial vision harmonises seamlessly with Alice Birch’s terrific script, which is strangely humorous but haunting at the same time. Leskov nicknamed his leading lady after the iconic Shakespearean figure due to her strength of character and the perilous path she follows, and this concept is brilliantly brought to the big screen by Florence Pugh, who is fast becoming one of the most interesting emerging actresses in the industry. Period.