I am old enough to remember when the word 'prequel' was new-minted and sounded vaguely exotic and exciting. The first film I heard it applied to was Raiders of the Forbidden City (as the movie in question was then known), which was a bit of a novelty at the time – these days, of course, you can't move for prequels, parallelquels, preremaquels, preraquels (this is a term specifically applying to prequels to movies starring the beauty queen and pin-up Ms Welch, in case you were wondering), and all sorts of other things. Yet more Disney stellar conflict prequels are in the pipeline, numerous more visits to Harry Potter world are planned, and H.R. Giger's little baby is bursting back onto the screen practically as I type (will the line stretch on to the crack of doom?).
You could therefore be forgiven for assuming that William Oldroyd's Lady Macbeth is yet another egregious addition to the trend, filling us in on the early life of one of Shakespeare's more memorable psychos. But no: this is actually a literary adaptation of another kind, a transplantation of Nikolai Leskov's novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District to northern England in the mid-to-late 19th century.
Front and centre throughout is Florence Pugh, delivering the kind of tremendous performance that in any sensible world should see her elevated to major stardom pretty sharpish. Pugh plays Katherine, a young woman whom we first meet on her wedding day. We learn nothing about her background or history except that she has effectively been bought as the bride for Alexander (Paul Hilton), the less than impressive son of wealthy landowner Boris Leicester (the magnificently-faced veteran character actor Christopher Fairbank at his most baleful). Katherine doesn't seem to be initially overly concerned by her lot, but is rather surprised when, on their wedding night, her new husband instructs her to take off her nightdress, only to immediately turn out the light and fall asleep.
Finding herself confined to the house and not receiving the attentions she was expecting, Katherine rapidly becomes deeply dissatisfied and actually rather frustrated by her lonely existence in the large and spartan country home of her new family. However, events conspire to see both her husband and father-in-law away on business for an extended period of time, leaving her as the lady of the house. This taste of freedom rather goes to her head, and she promptly starts drinking the wine cellar dry and launches herself into a liaison with one of the hired hands (Cosmo Jarvis) – though initially tentative, this rapidly becomes full-bloodedly enthusiastic.
Eventually, of course, her father-in-law returns and is far from delighted by what he discovers. But it transpires he has severely underestimated the girl he purchased solely to provide the family with an heir – rather than being just a decorative, mousy little thing, Katherine has hidden depths. And it seems there are none she won't sink to in order to get what she wants...
As you might have gathered, this is obviously a costume drama based on a piece of period literature, but it has none of the cosiness or the delight in its historical trappings that routinely afflicts this type of movie. Lady Macbeth is from the bleaker and darker end of the genre (and that's possibly putting it a touch gently). At showing I attended the BBFC certification was omitted (an unusual oversight), leading me to wonder exactly what I was in for – having seen it, I now suspect this film is either a very strong 15 or a low 18, and the accompanying disclaimer when it eventually turns up on BBC2 will run along the lines of 'This film contains scenes of sex, violence, very strong language, and moments which viewers may find upsetting'. Mainstream it probably isn't – or, to put it another way, it only goes to prove you can get away with no end of blood, horror, frequent nudity, and frantic rumpo provided you're making something properly cultural.
The film starts off looking like a cross between Wuthering Heights and a fairly typical story about the oppression and repression of desire, and Florence Pugh is appropriately vulnerable, determined, and (dare one say it) sexy in the part. Her warmth and humanity puts you on her side almost at once, and of course she's instantly sympathetic given the way she is used and abused by her in-laws virtually from the moment of her wedding. The question, of course, is to what extent she deserves to retain that sympathy, as what starts off as a completely understandable search for happiness spirals out of control and Katherine starts to display more sociopathic, and even homicidal qualities. One of the distinguishing things about Pugh's performance is that she never completely loses your sympathy, even after committing the most appalling crimes. This is ultimately a bleak and very uncomfortable film to watch, given how the story develops – it's a fair chunk of the way to being a psychological horror movie, and you can easily imagine Pugh leading a Nu-Hammer movie on the evidence here – and not one which offers easy certainties to the audience.
Pretty much the only issue I can raise against a film of almost immaculate focus and precision is that... oh, dear, I feel like I'm stepping into a minefield here... well, I know we are obliged to discuss the whitewashing of history these days, but it is surely possible to overcompensate in this department, and the decision to make virtually every working class character non-white or of mixed race is actually rather intrusive and a bit distracting. Maybe the film-makers are just trying to make a point about the universality of the story and that race shouldn't be an issue at all, but given the studied naturalism of most of the film this kind of abstraction doesn't really work. (Mobs of outraged diversity campaigners with blazing torches please assemble at the usual address.)
I am happy to report that Lady Macbeth, though released in the UK as counter-programming to Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2, is apparently doing really well for itself – by art house movie standards anyway. Nice to see that a very impressive movie can do the business financially, especially one as challenging as this. One to watch out for, I would say, and the same is definitely true for Florence Pugh, as well.