Picture a BBC costume drama spiced up with sex and blood, and you should be able to imagine Lady Macbeth.
Adapted from a Nikolai Leskov novella, it's a sinister slow burner that unfolds in rural England in 1865 and tracks a stifled wife's transformation into a serial killer. That wife is Katherine (Florence Pugh), who viciously retaliates against the fearsome abuses of her husband (Paul Hilton) and her father-in-law (Christopher Fairbank), two men so repugnant that you get a savage kick out of their suffering.
Yet despite director William Oldroyd's vengeful flair and admirable exploration of the tale's racial fissures—the scenes where Anna (Naomi Ackie), a black servant, is bullied into taking the fall for Katherine's indiscretions leave a nauseating sting—Lady Macbeth is memorable mainly for attempting to drown its audience in misery.
The film has a punishingly bleak conclusion and an exploitative scene involving a young boy. It's not clear if those scenes were included simply to showcase Oldroyd's toughness, but in any case, they reveal that the director has mistaken brutality for brilliance.
CRITIC'S RATING: 2/4 stars.
Lady Macbeth opens at Living Room Theaters on Friday, July 28. Rated R.