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In Lady Macbeth, privilege and power are a powder keg, and sex and murder are the spark

This is not a placid costume drama.

Florence Pugh in Lady Macbeth
Florence Pugh in Lady Macbeth
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

On its face, Lady Macbeth is connected to Shakespeare in name only. It’s adapted by Alice Birch from an 1865 Russian novella by Nikolai Leskov. Its main character, Katherine (Florence Pugh), is a character in the Lady Macbeth line — a potent cocktail of very few scruples and a lot of determination. But there are no overt Shakespeare references to be found in the film.

Yet Shakespeare was a keen observer of social class, and so, in turn, is Lady Macbeth. Katherine is a chilling avatar for the ways class and privilege — of both the obvious and hidden sort — insulate some people from the consequences of their actions while damning others.

Lady Macbeth is also a dazzling directorial debut from William Oldroyd. It’s visually stunning, each frame composed so carefully and deliberately that the wildness and danger roiling just below the surface feels even more frightening. Each scene ratchets up the tension. I left feeling shaken.

Lady Macbeth is a chess game of murderous privilege

Katherine is a young woman in rural England in an arranged marriage to Alexander (Paul Hilton), a man of some means who seems to have nothing but disgust for her. On their wedding night, he orders her to disrobe, looks at her, then turns over and goes to sleep. Katherine and Alexander live with Alexander’s father, Boris (Christopher Fairbank), and both men are severe to the extreme with Katherine, forcing her to stay indoors and submitting her to crushing boredom. Katherine spends her days trying to stay awake in a silent house along with her servant, Anna (Naomi Ackie).

Lady Macbeth
Florence Pugh in Lady Macbeth.

But Katherine is a rebel to the core, and the cruelty of her husband and father-in-law sets a match to a big pile of kindling that’s been inside her all along. When they both leave town on business, she deliberately strikes up a passionate affair with the new groomsman, Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis). And when her father-in-law returns and finds out about the affair, she coolly gets rid of him.

The drama that follows — in which Katherine’s sins grow less and less forgivable — intimately explores how privilege from wealth, class standing, gender, and race can by turns insulate or expose people to the consequences of their actions, and of others’ actions. It’s like watching a balletic game of chess, with Katherine maneuvering herself, as the queen, into the perfect position of power by eliminating everyone around her.

Her affair with Sebastian is at the center of it, and that’s where the most complicated games are played. It’s all about sex, and maybe self-hatred, at the start. But then it becomes more complex. Does she love him and crave his love in return? Does she love how she can command him, since he works for her husband? Is she power-drunk, bored, ruthless, or some combination of all of these?

Naomie Ackie in Lady Macbeth
Naomie Ackie in Lady Macbeth.

We don’t know, because the movie doesn’t want to tell us. The levels of treachery are immense, but they’re confined to the manor, giving the film a claustrophobic, hothouse feeling. We know next to nothing about Katherine herself, or about her husband’s family or business. Her past doesn’t matter. Neither does what’s going on past the edges of the manor.

Lady Macbeth keeps the audience at arms length, which makes it all the more chilling

The remarkable thing about Lady Macbeth is that it refuses to allow the audience to have the emotional reactions we want to have. We want to root for poor, bored, put-upon Katherine, but then she turns around and acts cruelly to Anna. We want to be on Katherine and Sebastian’s side, willing them toward happiness, but as the movie wears on, that desire sours until it bursts into startling, destructive flame.

Each frame of the film is gorgeously shot, almost painterly in how it renders the drab home, the wild moors, and Katherine’s luminous beauty. The shots are so still and quiet that we grow nervous, except when the passion and madness bubbling beneath the placid exterior break into passionate violence or passionate sex. Something’s got to give, and when it does — whew. It’s both a visceral thrill and a sickening plunge into chaos.

Florence Pugh appears in Lady Macbeth by William Oldroyd, an official selection of the Spotlight program at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.
Florence Pugh in Lady Macbeth.
Laurie Sparham / Sundance Institute

But Lady Macbeth isn’t going to do the work for you. The cathartic fun of watching its story unfold depends on paying attention to the players and imagining that they’re moving up and down a ladder of privilege and power, trying to reach the top. And yet they’ve all got different ideas about where the top is, and how they’ll get there. For Alexander, it’s merely having a wife he can order about with minimal fuss, and perhaps a bit of sadism. For Sebastian, it’s being just high enough to look down on his fellow servants at the manor. For Anna, it’s just getting through the day without being manipulated or abused. For Katherine, it seems, the sky may be the limit.

It becomes clear that Katherine is either something of a psychopath or a sociopath — or, at least, so bent on having her way that the other humans around her stop having meaning and dignity on their own. But there’s an element of revenge fantasy, too, in how she eliminates everyone who gets in her way. This is not a triumphant tale of feminism against the patriarchy, or not just that. If you can adjust to the idea that you’re not meant to sympathize with anyone, Lady Macbeth is a glorious, brutal rumination on the limits of power, position, and privilege, and where those borders are — and aren’t — able to crack.

Lady Macbeth opens in theaters on July 14.