Lust Leads Oppressed Young Wife Down a Dark Path in ‘Lady Macbeth’

Life wasn’t easy for Victorian women, as they had little control over their own lives, and this was especially true for those from the upper class, who were often treated as commodities by the men. In “Lady Macbeth,” this is the case for Katherine (Florence Pugh), a young woman who is married to a middle-aged man, Alexander (Paul Hilton), in 1865 England. It is later revealed that her father traded her, along with a piece of land, in a deal with Alexander’s miserly father Boris (Christopher Fairbank). Now the lady of a large manor complete with servants and a farm, Katherine is ordered by her new father-in-law to stay indoors and focus on her domestic duties, the most important one being the production of an heir. This proves to be an almost impossible task, as her husband proves unable to perform his part in the process. After both Boris and Alexander are called away, Katherine is given some breathing room, and what begins as a tale of an oppressed young woman having her first taste of freedom grows into something much darker.

The closest Katherine has to a female companion is her maid, Anna (Naomi Ackie), a woman close to her own age of African descent who straddles the line between being obedient and protecting her mistress, especially from herself. After a group of farmhands go too far amusing themselves at Anna’s expense, Katherine steps in, and this is when she first comes in contact with hunky Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis). The chemistry between the two is instant, and Katherine jumps into an affair with him, showing little restraint as she throws her high society playbook out the window. Little backstory is given about Sebastian, probably because his life story isn’t much interest to Katherine, as the relationship between the two is portrayed as being more physical than anything. When threatened with separation from her lover, she resorts to drastic measures to remove the two men standing in the way of her freedom. Just when she thinks it’s finally safe for her and Sebastian to live openly together, the mother of her husband’s former lover (Golda Rosheuvel) comes knocking with Alexander’s illegitimate son, Teddy (Anton Palmer). As Sebastian appears to be, Teddy is of mixed race, which makes one wonder about possible abuse of servant women by the powerful men they work for. However, this is not explored as the focus remains on Katherine’s all-consuming obsession that leads her down a dark path that shocks even her.

“Lady Macbeth,” which is based on a Russian novella “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District” by Nikolai Leskov, (the title comes from the similarities between the main character and the Scottish queen from the Shakespeare play), is so much more than the typical period drama about a woman struggling against the patriarchy. It’s a fascinating character study, as Katherine starts off as sympathetic, becomes admirable for defying her abusive husband, and eventually becomes terrifying as she engages in increasingly horrifying behavior. What really makes the film is Pugh’s striking performance, which is even more impressive considering the fact that she was only 19 during filming. Ackie is also brilliant as she is forced to stand by and watch her mistress’s descent into madness, literally silently, as the trauma she endures eventually causes her to become mute.

Lady Macbeth” opens July 14 in Los Angeles and New York.