By Richard von Busack
It’s called Lady Macbeth, but it’s less like Shakespeare than The Postman Always Rings Twice. It’s based on N. Leskov’s “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District,” first published in 1865 in a magazine edited by Dostoyevsky. The story of tyranny and murder was the source for Shostakovich’s last opera. Transferred from the Russian hinterlands to a backward northeast corner of England, Lady Macbeth asks a familiar question from decades of melodrama: Are murderesses made or born? Debuting feature director William Oldroyd leaves that question open: The much abused, then much abusing, protagonist Katherine (Florence Pugh, impressive), is transformed from a piece of living property to a chortling killer.
Wearing a cobwebby veil on her head, she’s married, and her maid Anna (Naomi Ackie) fixes her up for the wedding night. A small gathering of tyrants attends the wedding. One is Katherine’s vile, rotten-toothed father-in-law Boris (Christopher Fairbank), a recently ennobled coal baron. The groom is Boris’ equally nasty son Alexander (Paul Hilton).
When an emergency takes the father and son out on business, the new bride is forbidden to go out and explore the woods. Katherine has been alone for some time when she encounters the new horse-groom Sebastian (the musician Cosmo Jarvis); the unwashed brute later breaks into Katherine’s room. After Alexander the husband damns Katherine as a whore, she fetches Sebastian out of hiding, hikes up her nightshirt and mounts him right in front of the impotent bully she married.
Many of the cast are of African descent; color-blind casting fits a tale of plausible viciousness, matching the ruthless rich with the scheming poor. No matter what their color, oppressed people jockey for position, using everything from violence to gossip. Even the cat of the house looks manipulative and comfortless, staring up at her murderous keeper, a look of scorn on her face.