Cannes' Favorite 'Lady Macbeth' Isn't Daring, but It Might Be Racist

British film director William Oldroyd, second from left, arrives with, from left, British actress Naomi Ackie, U.S. actor and singer Cosmo Jarvis and British actress Florence Pugh for a photo-call after the screening of their film 'Lady Macbeth' at the 64th San Sebastian Film Festival on September 19, 2016. Ander Gillenea/AFP/Getty Images

If an ambitious women's studies major decided that her thesis would be a movie in which film-noir tropes of the femme fatale are married to a denunciation of the patriarchy, the result might be very close to William Oldroyd's Lady Macbeth. Say this for it: As thesis filmmaking goes, it's nasty enough to keep your interest, but the pleasure is scant—in part because the filmmaking is so calculated. Every shot is meticulously composed to make its point, with nothing left to chance. It is so calculated that you can see every shock from 3 miles out, and if it weren't for cold cruelty, Lady Macbeth would have no life at all.

The setting is some godforsaken part of rural England in the mid-19th century. Katherine (Florence Pugh) is sold in marriage as part of a land deal to Alexander (Paul Hilton), who needs an heir for his coal-mining business. Her new husband—a cold, mean drunk who is impotent only with her—wants to control her every move, and her hideous father-in-law (Christopher Fairbank) offers no comfort, instructing her to basically be a slave to his son.

When Alexander and his father are called away on business, Katherine, overwhelmed with boredom, takes up with Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), one of the workers on the estate. Soon they are rutting like bunnies—in her marital bed.

Seeing Katherine stand up to the bullying she receives suggests that the film is going the route of spunky period heroine finds love and triumphs over oppression. But you also notice how Katherine takes pleasure in bossing around her maid, Anna (Naomi Ackie), even letting her take the punishment for something Katherine did. The Lady is less a wilting violet who learns to bloom than, as the title implies, a cunning murderess. You don't mind when she bumps off her father-in-law (especially as it puts an end to Fairbank's scenery-chewing performance), but the movie isn't a feminist revenge tale.

Oldroyd and his scenarist, Alice Birch, must think they are doing something far more complex, luring the audience into cheering for Katherine but making her acts of violence more and more awful until we're revolted by her. But to what end? By making Katherine so evil, the movie falls into the old sexist shibboleths about scheming women, particularly sex-starved ones. Pugh, who bears an amusing resemblance to Miley Cyrus, gives a spirited performance that doesn't shy away from her character's villainy. But the distant, intellectualized approach keeps us from feeling any complicity with Katherine. She's funny laughing at Anna's shock at her open adultery, but Pugh is stuck with more of a conceit than a character. The source of Birch's screenplay, a short story by 19th-century Russian writer Nikolai Leskov, has the robust wisdom of a peasant myth. How could anyone read that story, with its lush descriptions of nature and the horrified sympathy it accords its protagonist, and come up with this joyless, colorless movie?

If there were any justice in the world of film criticism, Oldroyd would be getting the accusations of racism that—wrongly, and in ignorance of the clear meaning of their films—Sofia Coppola is getting for The Beguiled and Ana Lily Amirpour for The Bad Batch. He has made all the characters who are the least deserving targets of Katherine's violence black. (Sebastian is biracial, and Katherine's maid and two other prominent characters are black.) I don't know how many black people were in Northumberland in 1865, but in this movie, race is used for the sole purpose of heightening their victimization, and it's ugly.

At Cannes and other film festivals, Lady Macbeth was acclaimed for its daring. But for an unapologetic celebration of devious women, Out of the Past and Brian De Palma's Femme Fatale are much tougher. As a portrait of a psychopath in the guise of dutiful wife, 1945's Leave Her to Heaven has more punch. If an art-house film gets credit for what commercial movies have already done much better, then Katherine's victims aren't the only suckers here.