William Oldroyd’s 19th century period drama Lady Macbeth features a handful of strong performances as well as plentiful beautiful sights of the English countryside that echo Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights.
Overall, however, it’s unclear why the story is being told.
Nikolai Leskov’s novella Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk has previously been adapted for film, though it’s no classic of world literature like the work from which it draws its name — and screenwriter Alice Birch’s take on the material (along with Oldroyd’s otherwise ugly handheld camerawork) is unlikely to change that status.
Tracing the forced marriage of beautiful young Katherine (Florence Pugh) to a cruel yet ineffective — in the bedroom, among other places — husband Alexander (Paul Hilton), who lives on the estate of his equally unhuggable father Boris (Christopher Fairbank), the film sets itself up to be a difficult but rewarding tale of a woman standing up for herself and taking charge.
With no promising future for her at the manor, Katherine and new farmhand Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis) develop a mutual interest in one another while Alexander is away, much to the excitement and eventually horror of servant Anna (Naomi Ackie).
Thanks to Pugh’s and Jarvis’s chemistry, the lovers’ sexual allure is contagious, as is Katherine’s gradual understanding that she has the power to change her situation. Indeed, the film peaks in a scene where Katherine achieves her initial goal and temporarily sits as house’s mistress, like a more tolerable version of Joffrey Baratheon in Game of Thrones.
Sure, she does some very bad, irredeemable things, but — because other possibilities within her reach aren’t as appealing — there’s a desire to see the villainess get her way. In turn, as new obstacles arise to block her formerly smooth path to true happiness, it’s frustrating to see her and Sebastian navigate the complications.
Capping investment in their machinations is that neither character is well-developed nor likable enough to elicit sympathy in their journey, and so on they go, digging their proverbial hole deeper and deeper on the way to solidifying Lady Macbeth as downer that feels a lot longer than 80-plus minutes.
Grade: C. Rated R. Starts August 4 at Grail Moviehouse
(Photo: Roadside Attractions)