This film version transposes the story to somewhere in the Country Durham area of Northern England in the Victorian era. It is a dark and absorbing tale. Katherine (Florence Pugh) has been forced into a loveless marriage to an older man. Indeed it later emerges that he bought her – not unprecedented in fiction of that era. Thomas Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge sold his wife to another. Katherine’s husband Alexander (Paul Hilton) turns out to be both sexually dysfunctional, and frequently absent, leaving her alone in his chilly house, where footsteps echo on the bare boards and with no company other than his bullying father Boris (Christopher Fairbank) and her maid Anna (Naomi Ackie). Not surprisingly bored with her lot, Katherine starts a passionate affair with one of her husband’s grooms, Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), which in its powerful sexual explicitness is distinctly reminiscent of D.H. Lawrence. When her husband returns and puts an end to their fun, Katherine persuades Cosmo to help her murder Alexander, leaving the field clear for them to continue their affair. But that arrangement is once more frustrated, when a middle aged woman and her small grandson show up, claiming to have rights to Alexander’s estate.
Director William Oldroyd and his screenwriter Alice Birch both have a theatrical background and they have created an effective and unusual low key visual style in which to tell this story. Every shot is beautifully framed, moving stylistically from the heated nature of the scenes of sex and murder with Katherine and Sebastian to a still formality, particularly with an iconic shot of Katherine seated in the centre of a chaise longue just looking into the camera. There is also virtually no music to manipulate our emotions and what little there is is disturbingly dissonant.
Intriguing in view of the Victorian setting is the casting of black actors in the roles of Anna and later the grandmother and the child. What is their story? Are they perhaps former slaves, whose presence was not uncommon in England at that period? Or are the film makers going in for colour blind, diversity casting, using “race as code for class”, as one festival reviewer has suggested? At one point it looks like we might find out, as Katherine questions Anna about her background. But the conversation is then cut short by Katherine’s other activities, so we never know.
The theme of the story is familiar, dealing as it does with the helpless and frustrating lot of 19th Century women and their response to it by characters ranging from Jane Eyre to Anna Karenina and Madam Bovary – though both of these last turned their violence onto themselves, not others. The film is beautifully acted throughout, particularly by 19 year old Pugh in a disturbingly assured performance of a character who is both empathetic as well as horrifying, while the film itself, which was shot on a shoestring budget, is remarkably handsome.