If there's a chillier Lady Macbeth than Florence Pugh's callous, scheming madam, then we'll pass on the resultant heating bill. It didn't have to be this way. As this admirably pitiless adaptation of Nikolia Leskov's 1865 novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk opens, the teenage Katherine (Pugh) is married off to a coarse, impotent man twice her age (Paul Hilton).
Their loveless union is made all the more unbearable by the presence of her cruel, patriarchal father-in-law (Christopher Fairbank). Her life, like the agonising corset that squeezes into daily, is one of unbearable confinement.
One day, when her horrible husband leaves the estate on business, Katherine falls into bed with Sebastian, a cocksure, class-blind groomsman (indie singer Cosmo Jarvis). The act will have murderous consequences which will beget still more murderous consequences. It is as if the heroine, having breached one of the many social impositions that bind her, must now breach them all.
Alice Birch’s clever, minimalist script relocates the bloody deeds of the original novella – once the source of Dmitri Shostakovich’s 1934 opera – to wooded 19th-century Northumberland, where the industrial revolution provides a tacit background. Austere interiors seem to close in through cinematographer Ari Wegner’s still, caging framing; exteriors are glum, rocky and – with no little sense of pathetic fallacy – overcast.
As with Andrea Arnold's Wuthering Heights, William Oldroyd's bold film utilises a racially diverse cast. Nobody onscreen notes that Sebastian and Katherine's increasingly conflicted maid Anna (Naomi Ackie) are not white, and yet there's more than a whiff of Hegelian Herrschaft und Knechtschaft in Katherine's treatment of them: the lowest of the low orders made lower still.
Pugh, who made such an unforgettable debut in Carol Morley's The Falling, is remarkable as the variously carnal, ruthless, suffering, pitiable, monstrous anti-heroine. Naomi Ackie and Cosmo Jarvis are more than able to keep pace, with performances that transition from order to wide-eyed terror. This is as fine a costume drama as we'll see all year, one that tackles, class and race and gender in big-ass dresses. Imagine the fur and feathers Angela Carter would spit out if she chewed up Downton Abbey.