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The horrors of sex and power denied in 'Lady Macbeth'

No, this is not that Lady Macbeth – the one who wanted to get that "damned spot" out and who pondered the question "Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?"

The Lady Macbeth in director William Oldroyd's brilliant movie is from a short novella (58 pages in one version) by Nikolai Leskov, a contemporary of Fyodor Dostoevsky. Leskov's story was previously turned into one of the most controversial and embattled works of art in the 20th century – and thereby hangs a tale.

Leskov first published the tale in Dostoevsky's journal, "Epoch." In the 20th century, Dimitri Shostakovich turned it into a long opera. Reviews were initially decent – until Josef Stalin and some buddies saw it and walked out long before it was over.

It was then panned in Pravda (one legend is that Stalin wrote the review himself) and Shostakovich spent a good part of the rest of his life playing hide-and-seek with the disapproval of Stalin's goons in the musical culture world. It was an excruciating existence for one of Russia's greatest composers. What Richard Taruskin called "the high tide of Stalinism" was not kind to Shostakovich; he barely kept his head above water.

The film is a worthy and edgy descendant of such an embattled bloodline. Its director may be male, but this is a brilliant and very dark feminist fantasy about what can come from the thwarting of female sexuality and power.

Actress and playwright Alice Birch adapted Leskov's tale. The producer of the film is Fodhla Cronin O'Reilly. The cinematographer is Ari Wegner. Oldroyd is the only major male member of the filmmaking team. The heroine Katherine who turns into a scourge is played by Florence Pugh in a career-launching role.

Anyone who saw Sofia Coppola's remake of Don Siegel's "The Beguiled" and who found it entirely too tasteful and inconsequential needs to see "Lady Macbeth." This is the film some hoped Coppola's would be.

Katherine is the young wife of a husband twice her age. He uses her nakedness as an inspiration for masturbation but is otherwise entirely lacking in interest in her, either sexually or conversationally. She is to do in his household whatever she's told in a confined life, including never leave her house. She is virtually a prisoner on a 19th century farm.

Her black servant Anna has marginally more freedom. When, one day, Katherine happens upon vile and cruel abuse of Anna by the men on the farm, she reacts with less horror than not-so-secret passing interest in the men's ringleader, Sebastian. When Sebastian brazenly charges into her room one night to offer himself as solace for her husband's carnal neglect, the tale is set in motion.

What we're watching is a dark sexual liberation story indeed – a drama about "liberation" that becomes license and worse.

In this world, the stifling of others is universal. Lives and spirits are routinely crushed by men in charge. So when a woman overthrows all the confines of gender, the tale goes to very dark places.

And a brilliantly chilling ending.

Oldroyd knew that too much melodrama would sink his film. In a way similar to David Lowery in "A Ghost Story," he makes brilliantly parsimonious use of music. The natural sounds of the house drain it of ordinary human pity.

Katherine and Sebastian have a free sex life in her husband's absence. But nothing ever turns into caricature. The movie is asking questions about all power.

It is a completely original adaptation of Leskov set in England – never predictable in any way and, in its final inevitable scene, icily brilliant. A terrific film.


"Lady Macbeth"

4 stars (out of four)

Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis and Naomi Ackle in William Oldroyd's tale of an abused 19th-century wife in England who takes her sexuality and power into her own hands. Based on an 1860s tale by Nikolai Leskov. Rated R for violence, strong sexuality and language. 89 minutes.


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