With a title like Lady Macbeth, you do have some sense of what’s to come in this twice-removed adaptation of Shakespeare’s classic tale of power and betrayal. However it lands as a middle ground between being a direct adaptation of Leskov’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District and Shakespeare’s tale, though it lists Leskov as the main inspiration.
The story is recognizable enough: bored estate wife finds life again through an affair with one of the peasants. Florence Pugh (Marcella) creates a lady of the house who is both innocent and driven. Her motivations, fueled primarily by a lack of attention and respect, build naturally, if a bit quickly. Her counterpart, Cosmo Jarvis (Humans) gets dragged into her machinations willingly, but struggles with aspects, much like the Scottish king. Pugh’s evolution from meek chattel to ruling lady is horrifying, all the more so because you sort of root for her. But, much like her titular namesake, it is an unending hunger for power which, ultimately, cannot lead to a happy ending. Likewise, Jarvis’s awakening to his situation is intriguing to watch.
There are some significant differences from the book in Birch’s script; primarily the last act of the movie. They don’t really matter if you don’t know them…and to keep it at a reasonable length, the changes were necessary. They also provide a nice arc for Naomi Ackie, as the chambermaid. Ackie’s story actually risks taking over the movie, but the structure, particularly the first and last frames, keep it all on track nicely.
William Oldroyd directs the story with a sense of affection and dread for the characters. He makes them human but doesn’t shy away from the twisted nature of their decisions. As a first feature, for both he and Birch, and with a mostly untried cast, it is quite a launch of talent. It isn’t a fast film, but it is credibly well-made and subtle.