The ancestral origins of this movie are vaunted by its title, which leads us from Shakespeare’s ruthless anti-heroine to Nikolai Leskov’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District. This film, adapted from Leskov’s 1865 novel by Alice Birch and set, this time, in the northeast of England, is a dark and unnerving piece of work, as chilling as it is spare.
Florence Pugh is Katherine, a young Victorian woman sold into marriage. Her husband, Alexander (Paul Hilton), has no interest in her at all, and his father, Boris (Christopher Fairbank), is a brutal tyrant. Both men are often absent from home, and Katherine is alone and bored. At first she sleeps the days away; then she seeks solace in alcohol. And then she encounters Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), a farmhand, and they begin a passionate affair. So passionate, in fact, that it is dangerous, in a Heathcliff-Cathy kind of way; it’s surely no coincidence that these two women share a name. There is nothing Katherine won’t do to protect her illicit relationship, and no one she won’t sacrifice. Even Sebastian himself isn’t safe: “I’d rather kill you than not have you with me,” she says.
This is an extraordinary debut by director, William Oldroyd (he’s made a couple of critically acclaimed shorts in the past, but this is his first full-length film), one of stark originality. It looks like other costume dramas, but it doesn’t feel like them at all. There’s no sound track, which is oddly disconcerting, and accentuates every noise in the horribly quiet house: the cat chewing, the floorboards creaking; everything grates and enervates. Katherine’s frustration is palpable.
This isn’t an easy watch: there is violence and savagery throughout. Katherine’s response to oppression is spirited to say the least; she refuses to be confined. Race and class are important themes here too: mixed-race Sebastian knows he – not she – will be hanged if their crimes are discovered; black housemaid, Anna, is abused and exploited throughout. Katherine might be isolated, forced into a marriage she doesn’t want, but she has far more power and privilege than those with whom she spends her time.
Unlike her namesake, Katherine never wavers, never feels remorse. She’s powerful and subversive: loud when she’s supposed to be quiet; rebellious to the very end. Florence Pugh has an earthy vitality, and her performance is the foundation on which this remarkable film is built.