That doesn't detract from what is a suspenseful, tautly plotted, and often violent spin on the classic Victorian costume drama. Katherine (Florence Pugh) has been purchased as part of a chattel, along with "a piece of land not fit enough to graze a cow on", as a wife for the unlovely, and unlovable, Alexander (Paul Hilton) by his colliery owning father Boris (Christopher Fairbank).
Mornings see Katherine woken by her maid Anna (Naomi Ackie), during the day she wanders the draughty house in restricting bustles all the time looking like she's just stepped out of a Vermeer or Hammershoi painting, and the nights are worse still as Alexander instructs her to remove her nightdress and yet fails to fulfil his own conjugal side of the bargain. Not only is Alexander incapable of physical love but mentally, too, he is only proficient at bullying.
As mentally pinned in by this stultifying existence as she is physically by the tight crinolines laced up each morning by Anna, Katherine longs to escape the open prison of the house. With her husband called away on unspecified business she makes good on this, exploring both the nearby moors and also the stables where she falls in love with Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), an abusive, yet passionate, groom. They embark on a dangerous affair predicated on an aggressive sex which soon becomes mistaken for love.
Need, too, is subsumed by greed (or 'aspiration' as politicians like to rebrand it) and we see what happens when morality is sacrificed for personal ambition. You find yourself heading down a very rocky road indeed and it seems clear, from very early on, that this won't end well for many of the people involved.
It's great testament to both the actors, the director, and the story (based on Russian novelist Nikolai Leskov's Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District) that we're never sure exactly how things will pan out. It's beautifully shot, Dan Jones' sparse score unobtrusively nudges you rather than tries to tell the story for you, and the performances are uniformly excellent.
As Katherine, Florence Pugh has something of the young Anna Friel. Her heart shaped, often poker, face deftly hiding a resolve at first impressive and, later on, terrifying. As Sebastian, Cosmo Jarvis journeys from brash, borderline racist, thug to passionate lover and on to a man undergoing a very deep dark night of the soul. Christopher Fairbank will be familiar to those of a certain generation as the permanently snotted up Liverpudlian plasterer Moxey in the era defining TV show Auf Wiedersehen, Pet but as patriarchal Boris his steely stare is utterly disturbing.
Pugh dominates the screen from start to finish in an absolutely bravura performance and, as a newcomer, a great future surely awaits but props, too, must go to Naomi Ackie who, with much less screen time (and considerably fewer lines - for reasons that will soon become apparent on viewing), manages to convey so much. As a black woman, and servant, in a house controlled by the very worst of the white upper class fear seems to inhabit her every glance as, in some very uncomfortable scenes, she's often humiliated for the amusement of her supposed betters.
This searing indictment of racial inequality is matched by the way the film artfully manages to also make valid points about modern relationships of class and sex by looking at them through a 19c prism. You could watch it for that or you could watch it because it is, quite simply, a wonderful, and shocking, story. A debut feature by Oldroyd worthy of comparison with Robert Eggers' The Witch.