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Lady Macbeth: modern horror in period-drama clothing

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The more layers of clothing society puts on a young woman in the Victorian era, the more we want to take the clothing off. Something about the way a corset laces up ... admit it: You want to pull the string and set her free again.

Lady Macbeth is modern horror in period-drama's clothing. The film drips with sexuality and sin, and more than that, it has a cunning way of implicating us in the mischief. William Oldroyd directs it, from a script by Alice Burch, based on Nikolai Leskov's novel, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Think Jane Eyre, if Jane knew what an orgasm was, had a penchant for violence and disliked children.

The movie opens with our heroine, Katherine (Florence Pugh), on the day of her wedding, looking beautiful and bored under a white veil. It is 1865, before electricity or podcasts, in rural England. In the next scene, her maid, Anna (Naomi Ackie), puts Katherine in a nightgown in preparation for her wedding night with her cantankerous, middle-aged husband, Alexander (Paul Hilton). They stand in a drafty old house with claustrophobia-inducing shutters. "Are you cold?" Anna asks Katherine. "No," she replies. We feel Katherine's imminent interminable boredom; the cold is the least of her worries. "Are you nervous?" Anna asks. Again, Katherine says "No." It's a brief moment, and it happens before we've gotten to know the characters. I draw your attention to it because I want you to watch closely. Notice how Anna's trying to befriend Katherine, and how from the very beginning, Katherine is a formidable woman who doesn't need friends.

The first several scenes have an unusual emptiness to them, but stick with it. We see all three of Katherine's dresses (and the weird scaffolding underneath that makes them poofy); the stifling formality of teatime; and the severe ritual of combing, parting and braiding the young woman's hair. Who is all this fuss and routine for? Katherine never leaves the house, and her husband barely looks at her.

FLORENCE PUGH STARS AS KATHERINE LESTER IN LADY MACBETH.
  • Florence Pugh stars as Katherine Lester in Lady Macbeth.

Alexander's father, Boris (Christopher Fairbank), bought Katherine for his son, and he and Alexander treat her like both a dog and a fragile ornament at once. The men constantly warn Katherine that she'll get sick if she ventures into the fresh air.

It's her sexuality they're trying to keep pent up, of course, but we sense that it's not going to work. When father and son go off on separate business trips, Katherine gets entangled with the new groomsman, Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis). Sebastian isn't exactly a stickler for consent, which makes their early interactions more than a little unsettling. He might seem like he's in charge at first, but with Katherine, he's in over his head, and their affair sets in motion every bit of the carnage that follows.

Much has been made of Pugh's performance as Katherine, who pulls off the astounding trick of making us like her no matter what she does. Pay attention as well to Ackie's turn as Anna, a woman who takes every hit the movie throws at her with a stoic, knowing dread.

The critical reception for Lady Macbeth has been largely positive but tepid, and the underreaction enrages me. Mean characters hurt these critics' feelings, or else they misattribute their own discomfort to a flaw in the pacing. Don't be swayed by this faint praise and make the mistake of missing seeing this film in a theater. Besides the fine acting and compelling story, the movie has an affecting sound design that you'll want to be trapped in a dark room to fully experience. And Lady Macbeth is about as dark as films get.

Lady Macbeth opens at the Roxy Fri., Aug. 18.

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