A "feminist" film need not portray all its female characters in a positive light. Women aren't a monolith of benevolence. Still, a film with multiple female characters who are equal parts sympathetic and sadistic, who face off against one another in a battle of wits and will, exposing some harsh truths about race, class and privilege, is something rare -- something to be tightly embraced. Lady Macbeth -- a chilling period piece about a woman who comes into her own savage power, directed by William Oldroyd and penned by playwright Alice Birch -- is that film.
Newcomer Florence Pugh smolders as Lady Katherine, a young woman sold into a loveless and dutiful marriage with a much older man, Alexander (Paul Hilton). Alexander is dispatched abruptly to a fire somewhere yonder for an indefinite amount of time. Really, though, this is his shoddy and convenient excuse to disappear and avoid sleeping with his wife for months, or even forever.
The moment the house is free of men, Katherine's corset is loosened (or gone altogether). Later, when decorum demands that her servant Anna (Naomi Ackie) -- who happens to be black -- must again tie her up tight at the waist, Katherine deals with the pain by slurping red wine. And when Katherine takes a lover -- farmhand Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis) -- her demeanor grows hungrier, and Oldroyd finds in her desire deliciously dark humor. Pugh's and Ackie's performances here are electric and expressive, the former portraying ultimate power, the latter ultimate fear. By the end of this twisty, enigmatic story, my chest was as tight as one of Katherine's corsets.