In its darkest moments, Lady Macbeth owes a clear stylistic debt to the deadpan provocations of Michael Haneke, particularly when cinematographer Ari Wegner’s widescreen frame captures an unspeakable act in a single, static long shot, the elegant symmetry accentuating the horror. Elsewhere, handheld close-ups lend an urgent intimacy to Katherine’s emotional and physical travails. This may be a low-budget affair (reportedly less than £500,000), but it’s as richly textured as any more expensive period piece.
Much of that texture comes from the expressionist sound designs, which juxtapose the clatter of window shutters and crockery inside the house with the more sensual throbs of wind, rain and thunder that sweep through the exterior scenes. Music cues are kept to a minimum; I counted only three, each one a brooding ambient hum in the nightmarish aftermath of a mortal sin. Plaudits to Ben Baird and Dan Jones for their joint work conjuring this superb aural landscape.
While Pugh’s Katherine dominates the screen, she is fascinatingly mirrored by Naomi Ackie’s Anna, the maid who loses her voice as Katherine finds hers. Anna is subservient and humiliated, Katherine demonised and vilified, yet both are products of a society that imprisons women, whether within servants’ uniforms or cage-like crinolines. In one particularly alarming scene, Katherine looks on while Boris forces Anna to crawl on her knees “like an animal”, just one of a number of feral transmutations that find characters likened to tethered dogs, hung up like sows, sleeping in barns or brushed and tressed like horses.
Other terrific supporting turns include established talent Golda Rosheuvel and young newcomer Anton Palmer, whose appearance derails Katherine’s plans to turn the world upside down. Worth noting, too, that the film’s unblinkered approach to ethnicity (diverse, but never overtly mentioned) not only enriches the drama by challenging the whitewashed facade of much period fare, but also ensures that every role is filled by the best possible player.
Amid such an accomplished ensemble cast, Pugh is an electrifying presence, imposingly framed by the blue, gold and black hues of Holly Waddington’s costumes. Identified as a future star by my Observer colleague Guy Lodge back in 2014, this fearless performer seems hellbent on greatness. Appropriately, with a raft of forthcoming roles including a portrayal of British wrestler Paige in Fighting With My Family, Pugh’s in-demand status has ensured that this mesmerising Lady Macbeth shall sleep no more.