Florence Pugh, it is hard to take my eyes off of you. Hair slicked back, corset tight, skirt smoothed and with her flawless skin untroubled by a smile, this newlywed wife being held captive in a remote Victorian manor house is like a cat walking about her quiet domain. The character Pugh is playing, Katherine Lester, is bored, but we are not bored watching her, as something surely lurks within. If the title is any indication, it’s not going to be pleasant.
Screenwriter Alice Birch has adapted Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 novel Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (you know, that one) which was previously adapted for the screen as 1962’s “Siberian Lady Macbeth”. First timer William Oldroyd confidently directs, and gets a star-making performance from Pugh. This is her movie. Katherine is in just about every scene, and, eventually, is in control. At one point one of her antagonists snarls at the young bride “you have no idea of the damage you can cause.” He’ll soon find out he’s the one with no idea.
The setting for this version is northern England, in the late 1800s. The house, like the movie, is dark and sparse, and young Katherine is brought there on her wedding day. She is prepared for the big night by her maid, Anna, who seems to care about her mistress. The two women are of similar age but worlds apart, and the differences in their status, moral fiber and, intriguingly for this type of setting, race, become more and more important as time passes. Katherine’s boredom becomes malaise, then thirst, then lust, then anger. Once the caged cat gets outside and draws energy from the windy moors, she embarks on a path that can only lead to hell. But, better than the one she’s been living in, I guess?
Bit of Shakespeare, bit of Bronte, bit of Hitchcock, this movie does a lot with a little – the budget was under half a million dollars – and you might need that much to spend on therapy after seeing it, but do, go support this film and try and take your eyes off that sweet, evil face of Florence Pugh.
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