“The people who’ve gone before us have made a choice to not include black people in films, when black people were clearly there,” he said of other period films. “Ultimately, we did feel like we were more representative of that region and period.”
“Lady Macbeth” takes place almost entirely at one location, in and around a Northumberland castle that the protagonist, Katherine (Florence Pugh), has been forbidden to leave; she’s not even allowed to take in the fresh air. After failing to deflower her on their wedding night, her 40-something husband abandons her to attend to business elsewhere, whereupon the teenage Katherine begins to rebel.
She wanders the moors, she guzzles wine, and she beds a stable boy, Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), with whom she falls passionately in love. When the men of the house return and try to stop the affair, she lashes out murderously.
Mr. Oldroyd, a first time feature filmmaker, said he and his producer, Fodhla Cronin O’Reilly, were drawn to the story because it turned any notion of female victimhood on its head.
“Her response is not to suffer in silence, or run away, or commit suicide, as so many women have done in novels of that period, but to fight back,” Mr. Oldroyd said of Katherine. “We also see her spiral out of control, but she thinks she has to act in that way to survive.”
The script was adapted by the playwright Alice Birch from Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 novella “Lady of Macbeth of the Mtsensk District,” which was also the source of an opera by Shostakovich (it was effectively banned by Stalin), a ballet, and, in 1964, a film by the Polish director Andrzej Wajda. The story has nothing overtly to do with Shakespeare, though its title is an allusion to Lady Macbeth’s deadly plotting.
Mr. Oldroyd said Ms. Birch excelled at writing about strong women and wasn’t afraid of the power dynamics of violence. “We were so excited to see a complex female character who propels the story forward in a surprising and exciting way,” Ms. O’Reilly said.
The stripped-down script was mirrored by the spareness of the set. The tight budget meant that every expense had to be justified by how well it served the story, which Mr. Oldroyd said ended up benefiting the film.
“It really filtered down to the whole production,” he said. “There was a form of austerity in the way characters speak to each other, act to each other, what they wear, when they go outside and who they see.”
Filming largely took place in the Norman-style Lambton Castle in Northeast England, under slate-gray skies. The bloodlessness of the backdrop is completely offset by the wildness, vigor and bloom of Katherine, whom Ms. Pugh, a relative newcomer, has played to raves. Her Katherine is relentlessly modern and answerable only to her independent streak and sexual impulses (The Telegraph pithily deemed her “Lady Chatterley gone ballistic”).
Mr. Oldroyd said he looked at actresses from the United Kingdom, France and Australia, before casting Ms. Pugh, who was 19 at the time, and, he said, “very, very free.”
“She was able to make that transition between the young opportunist bride, and the woman we meet at the end,” Mr. Oldroyd said. “Plenty of people come to mind who can definitely play the femme fatale, but we didn’t want that to be up front. We needed that to be internal. We needed her to have resolve, and steel.”
Speaking by phone from Oxford, Ms. Pugh said she held Katherine in awe and saw her as being in limbo between child and woman. She is the lady of the house, yet also, at least at first, trapped. Part of what has made the film so seductive and confounding — it was released in Britain in April and has garnered glowing reviews on Rotten Tomatoes — is that Katherine has the audience’s empathy from the start, which makes her turn to violence that much more disturbing.
“We tried to make her as young and kind of excited by life as possible in the beginning, so it’s virtually impossible not to love and support her,” Ms. Pugh said. “You’re never quite sure whether she is a bloody brilliant lady, or a kid good at playing a grown-up.”
Other tensions are more subtle. The housemaid, Anna (Naomi Ackie), whom Katherine manipulates to devastating ends, is black, adding a hint of racial strain to their dynamic.
And the upstairs-downstairs feel of Katherine and Sebastian’s coupling was no doubt helped by the vastly different ways in which the actors approached their parts. Ms. Pugh is not a method actor and finds it hard to redo scenes over and again. Mr. Jarvis, by contrast, kept his character’s Geordie accent up for the whole shoot, slept on location and helped the crew lift equipment when he wasn’t acting so that his character would seem legitimately bone weary.
“She’s very, very confident, and we have very, very different ways of doing it,” Mr. Jarvis said of Ms. Pugh. “We just all got on with it.”
Invariably, “Lady Macbeth” has been repeatedly described as a feminist film, which Ms. Pugh said is well and good, though she’s not sure why that description is needed at all.
“Part of me goes, ‘Yes, let’s champion that word and use it all over,’” she added. “And another part of me goes ‘Why, why do we need it?’ She’s a woman who goes and gets what she wants, and yes gets a man in the meantime. She’s so amazing we don’t need to put a label on it.”