The great movie villains always have their reasons. Wicked as they are, we can usually understand them just a little.
This is certainly the case in “Lady Macbeth,” in which the villain is both victim and victimizer. Despite the title, there’s no Shakespeare in this movie, but there is a strong-willed wife who won’t shy away from spilling blood to reach her goals.
Lady Catherine (Florence Pugh) is a new bride at a chilly estate in 19th-century northern England. Her indifferent husband (Paul Hilton) isn’t inclined to consummate the marriage, while his mean father (Christopher Fairbank) is interested in Catherine only as a delivery system for an heir.
Catherine’s tendency to go walking in the wild moors indicates a restless nature. Eventually her attention turns to a lusty stablehand (Cosmo Jarvis), the rough antidote to the well-mannered world in which she’s trapped. Murder can’t be far behind.
Although it sounds like we might sympathize with Catherine, screenwriter Alice Birch and director William Oldroyd do not make it easy for us. Catherine’s lofty treatment of her black servant (Naomi Ackie) is an early signal that this character is no heroine. The cruelty she has absorbed is dished out by her in equal measure.
If it sounds a little like a film noir transplanted to an English country house — “Double Indemnity” with whalebone corsets — that’s not far off. “Lady Macbeth” is compelling because Catherine is such a bold mix of icy calculation and hot abandon.
The movie has those same qualities: It’s very formally composed, except for those moments when passion breaks out. If I’m not mistaken, it has no music until the final minute, a suffocating but appropriate decision.
At the center of all this composure is the performance of Florence Pugh, who previously starred in “The Falling.” Pugh has a face like the young Helena Bonham Carter and a quick, impatient delivery. I can’t say her performance seems very true to what 19th-century manners must have been, but it is exhilarating to watch.
The film reminded me of a silent movie: a melodramatic story told largely through actors’ eyes. Pugh and Ackie are especially adept at conveying volumes with a glance.
It’s based on the 1865 novel “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk,” by Nikolai Leskov, which lent itself to a celebrated opera by Shostakovich. If the opera unleashes the big emotions at full volume, the film succeeds by throttling its characters in their gilded trap. Either method suits the story’s entertaining villainy.
“Lady Macbeth” (3 stars)
The stifled new bride at a chilly English estate allows her restless glance toward a lusty stablehand — can murder be far behind? This film benefits from the mix of fire and ice, both in its formal-but-passionate style and the performance of Florence Pugh.
Rating: R, for nudity, violence
Opening Friday: SIFF Uptown, Seattle 10, Lincoln Square