If an ambitious women’s studies major decided that her thesis would be a movie in which film-noir tropes of the femme fatale are married to a denunciation of the patriarchy, the result might be very close to William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth. Say this for it: As thesis filmmaking goes, it’s nasty enough to keep your interest, but the pleasure is scant—in part because the filmmaking is so calculated. Every shot is meticulously composed to make its point, with nothing left to chance. It is so calculated that you can see every shock from 3 miles out, and if it weren’t for cold cruelty, Lady Macbeth would have no life at all.
The setting is some godforsaken part of rural England in the mid-19th century. Katherine (Florence Pugh) is sold in marriage as part of a land deal to Alexander (Paul Hilton), who needs an heir for his coal-mining business. Her new husband—a cold, mean drunk who is impotent only with her—wants to control her every move, and her hideous father-in-law (Christopher Fairbank) offers no comfort, instructing her to basically be a slave to his son.
When Alexander and his father are called away on business, Katherine, overwhelmed with boredom, takes up with Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), one of the workers on the estate. Soon they are rutting like bunnies—in her marital bed.
Seeing Katherine stand up to the bullying she receives suggests that the film is going the route of spunky period heroine finds love and triumphs over oppression. But you also notice how Katherine takes pleasure in bossing around her maid, Anna (Naomi Ackie), even letting her take the punishment for something Katherine did. The Lady is less a wilting violet who learns to bloom than, as the title implies, a cunning murderess. You don’t mind when she bumps off her father-in-law (especially as it puts an end to Fairbank’s scenery-chewing performance), but the movie isn’t a feminist…