It takes its title from Shakespeare’s most complex, diabolical, vulnerable wife character, but Lady Macbeth is not a prequel or an origin story. It is actually a rich, gothic drama unrelated to “The Scottish Play,” set in 1865 England about a young bride named Katherine (played in an extraordinary performance by relative newcomer Florence Pugh).
Katherine is stuck in a loveless arranged marriage to an older man (Paul Hilton) and while he is away, she embarks on a passionate sexual affair with a farmhand named Sebastian (musician Cosmo Jarvis). The illicit romance ennobles Katherine with a sense of agency — and she takes matters into her own hands, all the way through the movie’s terrific, nasty final twist.
Lady Macbeth makes the directorial debut of British theater director William Oldroyd and screenwriting debut of Alice Birch, who gives a sardonic feminist zest to Nikolai Leskov’s dour 1865 novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. Though it only contains about a half-dozen speaking roles, the movie is perfectly cast, especially in the two leading roles played by Pugh and Jarvis, as you can see in the clip above. This scene features Katherine hiding Sebastian in an antechamber once she realizes that her husband has come home.
The chemistry of between the two characters — and indeed actors as well — was carefully honed during the film’s audition process, as Pugh explained during a recent conversation with EW.
“I’d already been cast and I did a ‘chemistry read’ with three different actors,” the 21-year-old actress says. “The three boys were incredible, amazing, brilliant actors and physically beautiful men also. But the one thing we were asked to do was play-fight. Will [Oldtoyd] told us to try and push each other over until someone ends up on the floor. And I was pushing and pushing these guys. I wasn’t allowed to hit them but just push as hard as I could. And the only one who was really up for it was Cosmo. He just had this fire. And specifically for this film, you just needed a couple who wer going to go to extremes for each other.”
And that intensity paid off in the film’s most dramatic moments, but also during the tricky, BDSM-adjacent sex scenes. “Those scenes definitely wouldn’t work if the couple wasn’t comfortable with each other,” Pugh says. “It feels very safe doing a sex scene with someone who isn’t apologizing for elbowing me in the stomach or clipping my ear. With those two lovers, you couldn’t have two people who are going to be timid about it.”
Check out Lady Macbeth when it opens in limited release on Friday. It will be expanding to more theaters all summer.