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Rural England, 1865. Katherine (Florence Pugh) is stifled by her loveless marriage to a bitter man twice her age, whose family is cold and unforgiving. When she embarks on a passionate affair with a young worker on her husband's estate, a force is unleashed inside her, so powerful that she will stop at nothing to get what she wants.
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We first meet Katherine as she is getting married in one of those cold, stone English churches. We find out quickly that she has essentially been "sold" to her new husband, a gruff, grubby farmer/landowner in what I'd guess is Northern England in the 19th century. They don't know each other and they have no relationship. And he's not exactly a doting husband. He tells his new bride (who looks to be in her teens...the actress, Florence Pugh, was 19 at the time of filming) that she should confine herself to the house. Her new father-in-law, and even rougher and crustier version of the husband, tells her the same. He admonished her for not producing an heir...something that will be tough, since her new husband does not sleep with her. He clearly has some hang-ups, and his new wife is of no real interest to him, so she pretty much spends her days just sitting around, waiting to eat her next meal and later, to go to bed. She has no friends, but an odd sort of relationship develops with her maid.
Anyway, early in the film, while her husband and father-in-law are out...she begins to wander the land around the farm. And sure enough, her husband was right to fear her wandering, because she meets a rude, coarse but sexy farmhand, and begins a torrid affair with him. She enjoys herself quite thoroughly, and apparently doesn't care who knows it. They make loud, unmistakable noises in the house. The community begins to get an idea of what she's up to. (There's an amusing scene where the town minister pays her a visit for tea, encouraging her to spend less time outdoors, and more at church. Apparently the fresh air in this part of the world turns women into animals!!) So, Katherine begins to encounter obstacles to her being with her man.
The movie delights in showing us the extreme tactics she takes on to get what she wants. And she has no moral brakes that we can see. Her passions are cold and calculated. Watching Pugh take on this character is a blast. We see her mind working. She's constantly observing, assessing and taking action based on her observations. She manipulates. She will stop at nothing, and towards the end, there is a shocking scene during which I though...well, I've never seen this depicted on screen quite so disturbingly.
This is a slow burn of a movie. The sex scenes are passionate and energetic, but brief. Everything else moves at a stately pace. This is not an "action" movie. It has moments of humor, certainly, but the entire film has a dark cast to it. The lighting and the bleak land help...but so does Pugh's understated (but somehow juicy) performance. The film has a few unanswered questions (what's up with the maid?) and ends at a point where we feel there's more story to be told. And while we can clearly read Katherine's mind, the other characters are most cyphers. In a way, this reinforces the notion that everyone else is being seen through HER eyes, and those eyes don't much care what's going on in the minds of others...BUT for the audience, we'd probably like to know a little more about the other folks in this world.
But overall, I found the movie to be a treat to watch, and the story was certainly quite different. Some themes were familiar, but I've never seen them played out in this manner. Certainly worth a look.
Couple of comments: you may think this is yet another movie adaptation of the Shakespeare play, but in fact this is based on the Russian novel Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District by Nicolai Leskov. I will leave it to the Shakespeare experts to comment how different this story is from Shakespeare's. What I can say is this: the movie is very much story-driven. Things happen, and happen fast, and it doesn't let up! There is hardly any music in the film. Another unusual fact: the movie does not have a title. There are no opening credit, and when the end titles start, it simply says "Based on Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District by Nicolai Leskov", and that's it. (The Katherine character is regularly referred to as "Mrs. Lester" or maybe that should be "Leicester".) The star of the movie for sure is Florence Pugh, an up-and-coming British actress, whom I can assure you we will see plenty more of (she reminds me of a young Kate Winslett). Played by Pugh, Katherine is passionate and ruthless. Last but not lest, the movie was filmed (according to the end titles) in Northumberland, the area just below the border with Scotland, just beautiful.
"Lady MacBeth" premiered at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival to positive buzz. It finally opened this weekend at my local art-house theater here in Cincinnati, and I couldn't wait to see it. The Friday early evening screening where I saw this at was attended dismally (4 people, including myself), which does not bode well for this movie, considering it was the opening night. That's a shame. Maybe this will gather a larger audience through Amazon Instant Video, or eventually on DVD/Blu-ray. If you like a strong story-driven movie with great acting, you could do a lot worse than this particular "Lady MacBeth"!
In this story of female oppression, almost everyone is deeply flawed with no regard for doing what is morally right. Poor housemaid Anna (Naomi Ackie) finds herself in the middle of hostilities and intrigues and serves as the film’s only moral compass. The early scenes of Katherine’s boredom and wife-as-prisoner give way to a stronger, more aggressive woman determined to extricate herself from the hold of her husband and father-in-law. We see her plotting dastardly deeds with calm, effortless logic. Despite her youth, Ms. Pugh conveys frustration and icy authority. She plays Katherine as always thinking, playing scenarios over in her mind, figuring ramifications of her actions, all while maintaining the pose of a helpless, dutiful wife.
Bonus materials on the R-rated widescreen DVD release include a behind-the-scenes featurette and photo gallery.