Katherine (Florence Pugh) lives in the eighteen-hundreds in the North of England, and she has been married off to an older landowner, Alexander (Paul Hilton), who has a country estate there. Unfortunately, this young woman quickly discovers her existence is not to appreciate life, or be loved by anyone, but simply to do whatever her husband and father-in-law Boris (Christopher Fairbank) tell her to, and her feelings or opinions do not enter into the conversation, if you can call it a conversation at all. When she finds out on her wedding night that Alexander has no interest in her sexually other than to get her to strip while he watches her, it becomes apparent she will not be bearing an heir soon either...
Lady Macbeth of Mtensk was a nineteenth century novel by the Russian writer Nikolai Leskov, not maybe one of the most famous of that era's novelists but well-regarded nonetheless among those who took the time to read him. This book had been adapted for screens large and small before, but this was perhaps the most radical take on the material, while still embracing the notion of an immoral woman and the shenanigans she gets up to; some saw a feminist slant in Alice Birch's screenplay, as Katherine, transplanted from Russia to England, was not about to buckle under the pressure these ignorant men were placing her under. But it was how she reacted that was the issue.
As the title implies, she patterned herself after Lady Macbeth and became a murderer to ensure matters went her way. Initially, she is bored out of her mind, and we can draw from this tedium she suffers that it somehow warps her mind, coupled with the crushing intolerance of the two men in her life who have nothing to say to her except ordering her around and admonishing her, even hitting her if they don't like what she says to them. The message seemed to be that if you victimise someone for long enough, the situation will come back and bite you, but not everyone was going to go to the lengths Katherine does as once Alexander has wandered off on business, utterly disinterested in her, his father becomes even more tyrannical.
There comes a breaking point, and our antiheroine opts for erasing her tormentor from the picture by poisoning him with mushrooms, locking him in a side room while she strikes up conversation with the maid Anna (Naomi Ackie) who really does not want to know. Anna was intriguing for as Katherine's behaviour grows ever less sympathetic, the servant transforms into a channel for our empathy, as she is so traumatised she becomes mute and eventually is unable to speak up for herself at a crucial moment. But Katherine is not working alone, for she has her boy toy to assist her, Sebastian (musician Cosmo Jarvis), who she amused herself with when Alexander was away, to the extent that he has made her pregnant after their Lady Chatterly-style romps in the stables and even the main bedroom.
It would appear the protagonist is sowing the seeds of her own destruction, but there was the class element that was difficult to dismiss, stating more or less outright that she could get away with her crimes - there were more murders to come - because her marriage had elevated her status to noblewoman. Therefore the lower class Sebastian is not only at her beck and call, but also set up as her fall guy, and Anna, who we assume was the product of slavery as she is of African origin, has even less hope for getting out of the muddle that Katherine has manufactured for just about everyone who crosses her path. Some would say she was worth respect because she upset so many suffocating strictures in this society, but then you see certain victims she has created simply to avoid being one herself, and you cannot endorse her without thinking through your justification. Well-acted throughout and with an unforgiving, stark mood, Lady Macbeth was not about easy answers, for Katherine's idea of those are morally corrupted. Music by Dan Jones.