Filmmaker William Oldroyd’s debut feature is a stunning Victorian dark period drama adapted from Russian writer Nikola Leskov’s 1865 novella Lady Macbeth of Mitsensk. Relocated to a remote part of the British northern countryside it is the compelling tale of how a reluctant teenage bride took matters into her own hands to re-shape her destiny to one that she wanted regardless of the cost.
Katherine (Florence Pugh) had literally been sold off by her father along with a piece of land to Boris (Christopher Fairbank) a particularly unpleasant elderly colliery magnet as a bride for his middle-aged son Alexander (Paul Hilton) an equally miserable man. It turns out that Alexander was no keener on this transaction than Katherine, and as he was unable to consummate the marriage he made a point of going away and leaving his new bride for long stretches of time on her own.
He and his father insisted that Katherine never stray outside at all and stay home to fulfill her wifely duties although now one is really sure what that means exactly as the house is overrun by servants waiting on her hand and foot.
When both men of the house are away on business Katherine finally gets to escapes outdoors for a change and in doing so encounters James (Cosmo Jarvis) a swarthy new groomsman and the two of them take such an immediate shine to each other that for the very first time her pristine marriage bed is seeing some action. Once the virgin bride gets a taste for what she has been missing, she simply cannot get enough as suddenly her ‘imprisonment’ in this enormous cold country house, doesn’t look so bleak after all.
Of course when her father-in-law returns and is informed by some of the servants exactly how the mistress of the house has been keep herself entertained, he angrily beats James with his cane to near death, and orders Katherine to focus on producing a son and heir. However what he, and James, have unleashed is a single-minded vengeful young woman who will now do literally anything to ensure that she gets out of her marriage so that she and her young lover can be together for good.
This remarkable transformation from a docile and obedient teenager into this scheming revengeful heartless young harridan is a pitch-perfect performance from newbie Pugh in her very first leading role. The raw chemistry between her and singer/songwriter turned actor Jarvis was electric, and easy to see why she would plot so hard to keep hold off him permanently.
The setting is bleak and the panoramas of the countryside (beautifully shot) just emphasis the sheer remoteness of Katherine’s rather empty and seemingly pointless existence which makes her motives seem both plausible and so understandable in this eerily entertaining tragedy.