How long does sympathy last? How far can we follow a character from being wronged into wrongdoing? Lush, alluring, and cold, cold, cold, “Lady Macbeth” offers a test case. You watch in solidarity at first, but by the end you’re prying the movie’s fingers off your wrists and feeling the chill all the way home.
The source isn’t Shakespeare but Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 novella, “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District,” which has already been turned into an opera, a ballet, and two previous film versions. None of which makes this new adaptation, directed by William Oldroyd (in a striking feature debut) and scripted by Alice Birch, the worse for wear.
The time period has been retained but the action has been moved to the northern counties of England, isolated and unwelcoming. We see a very young woman, Katherine (Florence Pugh), married off to a sour-faced man; she glances around the church as if snatching a final look at freedom.
The husband (Paul Hilton) is under the thumb of a tyrannical father (Christopher Fairbank) and seems less than interested in his marital duties — however Katherine got here, it’s clear she was bought and sold. So we feel for her, even as cinematographer Ari Wegner’s static, meticulously composed frames imprison her. We learn that Katherine’s mother instilled in her a love of nature and long walks, but a woman’s place in this man’s world is indoors, windows tightly locked to keep out the dreaded fresh air. When we see the flames of rebellion smolder in the young wife’s eyes, we cheer them on.
“Lady Macbeth” springs its trap slowly, in part because Pugh is phenomenal in a headstrong yet tightly controlled performance. Her husband and father-in-law away on business, Katherine wastes no time falling into bed with Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), a cruel stud of a groomsman who’s foolish enough to think he’s calling the shots. And then, step by intricate step, the director and his heroine lead us down a moral staircase, at the bottom of which lies — well, see for yourself.
How long do we remain on Katherine’s side? Longer than we may like, once we think about it afterward. Stylistically, “Lady Macbeth” is pared to the bone, filmed in natural light with steady, unforgiving camerawork. The lack of soundtrack music makes the air in those rooms feel heavy and foreboding; it’s as though we hear each furtive thought. The effect is like reading a Bronte novel crisscrossed with “Madame Bovary” and then sparked to life by one of the darker students of human nature — Patricia Highsmith, perhaps.
Oldroyd adds further dissonance to his placid period exteriors by casting several roles with black actors: Katherine’s lover; a young boy (Anton Palmer, adorable) and a grandmother (Golda Rosheuvel) with claims on the heroine’s loyalties; and Anna (Naomi Ackie), a housemaid who becomes the movie’s wracked conscience. The social nature of Katherine’s damage is never explicitly spelled out — just as we’re allowed to let our feelings about her fester right up to the end credits — but matters of class and race and privilege push hard against the film’s burnished surfaces.
“Lady Macbeth” is thus simple in the telling while leaving us with a lapful of thorns; it’s as sensual as a tryst and as wintry as a grave. Is Oldroyd’s vision of a woman following her willfullness all the way into hell ultimately reductive or too pat? Is Katherine as much the movie’s victim as the other characters are hers? Maybe. But Pugh and the film around her hold an audience transfixed and conflicted to the end. What we do with our rattled sensibilities after that is up to us.
Directed by William Oldroyd. Written by Alice Birch, based on a novella by Nikolai Leskov. Starring Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis, Naomi Ackie. At Kendall Square, West Newton. 89 minutes. R (some disturbing violence, strong sexuality/nudity, and language)Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.