Anna Karenina Film Review: Featuring Interviews with director Joe Wright and actress Keira Knightley
By Laura Werling
Film poster, Anna Karenina. Courtesy of Focus Features
The classic novel by Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, has been brought to life in a modern film adaptation of the tragic love story that will always be extraordinary. Anna Karenina was directed by acclaimed filmmaker Joe Wright, and the screenplay was written by Academy Award winner Tom Stoppard. The film stars Academy Award nominated actress Keira Knightley as Anna, whose husband, Karenin, was played by Jude Law. The story is set in l874, Imperial Russia. Enduring, powerful, and romantic, the story explores the complexities of love in a way that will always relate to its reader; it changes as you change.
The classic story shows us the life of Anna, in the luxurious and opulent high-society of St. Petersburg. She is passionate and vibrant, yet later on we see her vanity and selfishness. She is married to a high-ranking government official, Karenin (Jude Law) and together they have a son. Anna travels to Moscow when her brother Oblonsky (Matthew McFayden) reaches out, in need of her help to fix his marriage, in which he committed adultery. On her way, she meets Countess Vronsky, whose attractive and gallant son, a cavalry officer, greets her at the train station. Anna and Count Vronsky forge an immediate mutual passion for each other. Oblonsky’s best friend, Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), is introduced as the other half of the story. He is the counterpart to Anna’s tragic story, and both the director Wright and actress Knightley agree that Levin’s story holds the entire point of this epic tale. Levin is compassionate, sensitive, and in love with Oblonsky’s wife’s sister, Kitty (Alicia Vikander). He proposes to her, and, breaking his heart, she declines. Levin throws himself into his farm work and contemplates love and spirituality in life. Kitty is instead infatuated with Count Vronsky, but she quickly becomes heartbroken as well when she witnesses the connection between Vronsky and Anna in the stunning ballroom dance sequence. Anna gives in to her desires and engages in a passionate affair with Vronsky.
She is consumed with thoughts of him and it begins to take over her life. Her husband gives her an ultimatum, forcing her to give up her love affair with Vronsky or give up her life with her husband and her son. Anna makes decisions that effect her life and all those around her and must handle the consequences. In Anna’s pursuit of happiness, she flips the high-society she was once a part of upside down and everyone in her world turns against her. She goes against the grain by making selfish and reckless choices that dramatically impact everything. This intense and emotionally charged story of the many types of love is moving from every aspect. This is a classic study of the human condition and is a portrait of love in its many forms. Anna Karenina is currently in theaters.
“Everybody is trying in some way to learn to love.” – Director Joe Wright
I had the pleasure of interviewing the talented director, Joe Wright, and the film’s leading actress, Keira Knightley. Read on to see their insight on the making of this extraordinary film.
Interview with Anna Karenina director, Joe Wright
Director Joe Wright, Photo: Laura Werling
BN: What was your relationship like with Tom Stoppard (Screenplay) on this film?
Joe Wright: Tom has been a hero of mine for some time, and I was really only interested in making Anna Karenina if he were to write it. That was the point of it, was to work with him. So I approached him and was terrified because I had never met him before. I discovered him to be one of those extraordinarily brilliant people, that when you meet them, instead of their brilliance making you feel small and tiny in their presence, he elevates you and you feel bigger when you’re around him. Its as if he were able to, humbly, ask Tolstoy down from his plinth, and they sat across the table from one another, and they discussed the novel, it was a really amazing thing to watch him work. And very few writers, I think, would have had that assurance. So we talked for about three months about how this adaptation might work, and once he had a clear idea and he began to write out scenes. He must have read the book about four or five times in that period, and once he’d worked out how to do it, he went away to a country cottage and spent six weeks writing. After six weeks, he delivered the first draft, and pretty much 85% of the film came from the first draft. It was as close to perfect as any first draft I’ve ever read.
BN: Was it difficult to translate Russian culture into a British cast?
JW: The idea that Russian culture at the time wasn’t really Russian; they were Russian in a very specific way, which was to try and be something other than Russian. They wanted to be French, they all spoke French. They read etiquette books on how to behave like French people, they dressed in Paris fashions, and that was really the reason why I chose to set the film in the theater, on a stage. I decided to divest myself of the trappings of realism, and shoot the film in one single location. The choice to shoot it in a theater was about this idea that they were living their lives as if upon a stage. So to answer your question more precisely, the nature I found interesting about Russian society at the time was this identity crisis that they were going through, socially. Anna’s going through an identity crisis as well, the role that she had adopted no longer suits her, she has this violent passion that needs to break out. So one thing we also did was cast Russian people as all the extras in the film. I put ads in the Russian speaking newspapers in London, and asked for anyone who wants to come and be in Anna Karenina. I expected a few hundred people to turn up, but in fact when we arrived at the casting there was over 2,000 people cueing right around the block. Everyone who appears in the film, other that the main actors, are all Russian. They gave us authenticity, they told me when I was getting started wrong.
BN: The dancing in the film is very unique. Where did that come from?
JW: It comes from a choreographer called Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, who is one of the leading lights of contemporary dance in Europe. He has a company in the Netherlands. And I was interested in exploring the boundaries of how we express ourselves physically at any given moment. Physicality gives away more of our true feelings, so I was interested in this physical style of performance. A lot of the rehearsals we did were investigating physical improvisation.
BN: Who else worked on creating your vision for the film?
JW: We’re a family, I often feel fraudulent sitting here in front of you guys saying “I’m the filmmaker”, because actually the film is made by a group of people, myself, and Seamus McGarvey, the Director of Photography, Sarah Greenwood, the Production Designer, and Jacqueline Durran, the Costume Designer. We’ve all known each other a long time, and so we have a kind of company atmosphere. I also like working with the same actors in front of camera and the same crew behind camera. I find the whole process in creating a film quite exposing, and so I like to be surrounded by people I love and trust.
BN: In some older Hollywood versions of the film, the character Levin is not a major part of the story, when in fact Levin’s story is very significant in the novel. Can you tell us about your decision to include Levin’s story alongside Anna’s?
JW: To me, there is no Anna Karenina without Levin; he is the point of it. You need him to balance her story. I can understand why, if you’re trying to get that book into a film, you’d say the easy cut is Levin. But the problem with that for Tom and I was that if you cut Levin, Anna becomes an incredibly bleak story. Because she is not a heroine; she is cruel and violent and she is the opposite of hypocritical and she has belief in love. She has this fire in her belly. And, like Tolstoy, I have a highly ambivalent reaction to her. I love her as Tolstoy fell in love with her, but she is, I think, in Tolstoy’s eyes, culpable. If you don’t have Levin, than all you have is an empty heroine, and Levin, to me, is the point. It’s a book about being human and, for me, it’s a book about being human and how we can strive towards our humanness through our experience of love. It’s a deeply spiritual text as far as I’m concerned. And so that’s what Levin gives us; he is the point of the story.
BN: In the last section of the book, in Levin’s mind, he is reconciling his belief in God. Its very philosophical, and it really is about Levin just as much as it is about Anna Karenina.
JW: I think that Levin was an autobiographical portrait of Tolstoy, which is why I chose to set Levin’s sequences in a more cinematic reality, as opposed to the theatrical reality of Anna’s story. She exists in Levin’s head almost.
BN: You mentioned before that Tom Stoppard, the screenplay writer, was able to have a metaphorical sit-down with Tolstoy to get inside the story and translate it to the script. Did you have a similar process when envisioning the film?
JW: My process was through reading Levin, really. I spent time in particular reading the last sequence in the book where he talks about having had this extraordinary spiritual epiphany. All the things Levin realizes are all things I found deeply relevant to my own experience of marriage and life. Also, I went to Tolstoy’s house, to see the spot where he was buried, and I found that to be a very moving experience. He was buried in an unmarked grave, and he didn’t want any cross. It was at the place where his brother said there was a green twig buried, and if you could ever find that twig you found the secret to human happiness. And the fact that he chose to be buried at that place was very touching. I like his later writings as well, I found his gospels to be deeply affecting, and his pacifism. I find him to be a very modern philosopher as well, and a lot of people have a problem with the fact that he gave up writing literature and dedicated himself to his search, but I find that really wonderful and moving. He was flawed, obviously, deeply flawed, and I wouldn’t have wanted to be married to him. (Laughs)
Interview with Anna Karenina actress, Keira Knightley
Actress Keira Knightley, Photo: Laura Werling
BN: So much of the film is set on a stage, where the people are acting like they’re something they’re not. Is there a time in your life, when you’re not acting, that you felt like you were on a stage yourself, or you were performing for the benefit of others?
Keira Knightley: I think that’s what being socialized is, I think we all perform all the time. I mean, I’m performing the role of an actress, you’re performing the role of a journalist, when we go home we’ll perform a different role, we’ll be a husband, a wife, girlfriend, boyfriend, and a friend will be a friend. Yes, I think we do that 90% of the time.
BN: I thought your performance was wonderful and moving, I was sobbing by the end…
BN: Being a young woman in the modern world, what shocks you the most about your character, Anna Karenina, in Imperial Russia? What couldn’t you relate to?
KK: There wasn’t anything that I couldn’t relate to and I thought that was the most shocking thing in itself. I think that being a woman now is much easier; if I leave a husband or a boyfriend and I had a child, I’m not necessarily going to loose that child. Now I’m not going to necessarily be shunned by society. But honestly, there wasn’t anything about it that was that far away. I think we live in societies with rules, and if you break those rules than the pack turns against you, and I think in that way, you can completely, it doesn’t matter where you live or when you live, you can understand Anna’s story, and that feeling of being ostracized, or that feeling of being trapped by rules that don’t necessarily fit. The idea that she gets destroyed almost by being the most honest person in the whole film, and its that honesty, that lack of an ability to live within a lie, that is the thing that leads to her destruction. It’s interesting, that it’s probably still the same, in a way.
BN: How did you feel about Tom Stoppard’s translation of Tolstoy’s novel to the screenplay? Were there any elements in the screenplay that you weren’t expecting?
KK: I think it’s the fact that he managed to get a book that’s 820 pages down to a screenplay of 115 pages without feeling like it had missed the essence of the book and the essence of each character. It was an amazing feat, because I think you can see how you do an adaptation for television; if you’re given two two-hour slots, it will fit very nicely into that, but trying to get a book of that size, with that many ideas into a two hour film is something that all of us were thinking “what are we going to loose?” Because you’re going to loose something. It was amazing the first time I read it, that he had actually managed to get it all in there, I though that was incredibly impressive.
BN: There’s a lot of story-telling going on with your costumes. Can you tell us how you were working with the costume designer to embody the character of Anna Karenina?
KK: Well, first of all, a massive part of her character is vanity. It’s written about for pages and pages in the book, Leo Tolstoy goes on about it a lot. so you kind of think that’s an interesting part of the character, and as everything starts crumbling around her, she takes more and more stock of her appearance, and that becomes a greater and greater thing that she’s holding on to. So, in that, it meant that we got some really good costumes. But, I think the reason that I love working with Jacqueline Durran, the costume designer, who did Pride and Prejudice and Atonement as well, is that she really works from a character base and everything is full of symbolism. So we saw Anna as being like a bird trapped in a cage, so the idea of the veils as cages, you literally see the cage underneath the dress and the corset as a cage. We had all that fur as well; she’s surrounded by death. She’s being throttled by the dead, trapped birds in her hair, and then the diamonds being the hardest stone that could cut her throat at any second. We wanted sex to be a part of it as well. So a lot of the dresses were based on the idea of lingerie, in that they’re slightly falling off, or that there’s lace poking out. We actually used bed linen fabric in one of the dresses to keep that post-coital vibe in it. For last dress that she’s seen in, I got obsessed with the idea of the Whore of Babylon, and the Fall of the Whore of Babylon. So finding that final color for that dress in that last sequence was based on a couple of paintings that we found of the Fall of the Whore of Babylon. Always like a bit of symbolism. (Laughs)
BN: There seems to be a connection between your character in Anna Karenina to Sabina Spielrein, your character in A Dangerous Method. Surprisingly, there is a link between the two. Can you tell us your thoughts on that?
KK: Neurosis, I suppose, is the link. I think because of the amount of research I’d done for Sabina Spielrein, a lot of that definitely influenced the thoughts that I had behind the character of Anna. The reason for the suicide in this was actually based on a conversation that I’d had with a psychoanalyst as research for Sabina, which was when she described suicide as “the shy persons’ homicide”, and that struck me as a really interesting idea for Anna. That the suicide was an act of great violence, that it was an act of great rage turned inward, and it was sort of described like that in the book. In the book, she does it in order to make Vronsky suffer, she does it so that he will pay. It’s out of an amazing amount of rage, and as opposed to her giving in to the fate of it. There’s a quietness to it, and it’s not quite the same in Anna Karenina as it is in A Dangerous Method, but it’s where I started with it. I definitely tried to put the thread of that “shy person’s homicide” throughout the characterization.
BN: How was it working with Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who plays Count Vronsky in the film?
KK: He’s an amazing creature. He’s also a great mate, but he works in exactly the opposite way that I do. I like to sit at tables, and I like to talk about it, and I like to go through the book and pick out pieces and find different bits of research, and he doesn’t like to talk about it at all. We did a lot of improvisations that were purely movement, so we had three weeks of workshops that were only movement based. We literally did an improvisation that charted the beginning of Anna and Vronsky’s meeting, right throughout their relationship, all the way to the end of it, in a twenty minute piece of movement improvisation. Aaron completely works through movement, he is entirely comfortable in it, and his whole body can create a character, in a way that you rarely see in screen actors because we’re working in close-ups. I’ve never met anybody like that, and as soon as we’d been on set and we’d get into it, there would be moments when we wouldn’t be able to figure out how to do a scene, so we’d reference this twenty minute movement piece, and all of the sudden the whole thing would make sense again. So you know, he’s extraordinary.
BN: You clearly do a lot of research for a film role like this. What do the copies of your book look like when you finish a film like this?
KK: Yes, it’s about twice the size, it has a lot of colored post-its. I’m a big fan, I have a very large supply of different colored post-its.
BN: What do the different colors mean? Do you have a specific way of organizing your thoughts for the role you’re playing?
KK: They’ll be different characters, different events, different ideas. Or charting, for example, the violence within her character would be one color, or her relationship with another character would be another color. I do sometimes run out of colors.
BN: And at what point do you transition over from the book to the script?
KK: It took about a month to get through the book, and then break the book down, and then probably about two-three weeks to get everything that I wanted from the book into the script. So the scripts look the same. I worked with a director called Ian Rickson a couple of years ago, who I worked with on stage, and he said that the best actors, or the actors that he’d like to work with the most are like detectives. I really liked that, because I think he’s right. I mean, you’re playing somebody else, you’ve got to figure out how they tick, or why they tick, and different things will make sense to you in different ways. Like another actress who I worked with on stage, she got into word counting. So she went through the play that we were working on, and she’d count the work guilt, or the word shame, or whatever the word might be, the word love. And just the fact of the number of times it was used, you suddenly saw the whole piece in a different way. You suddenly went, ok well I didn’t think it was about that but this word keeps coming up. so I did do that kind of thing with Anna Karenina and shame being a main word, which is very obvious, but it comes all the way through it.
BN: When did you first get exposed to Tolstoy’s work and what was the experience like compared to now?
KK: Well, I read War and Peace first, and then read Anna Karenina when I was around 19 years old. My memory of it is being very beautiful and sweeping and romantic, and getting very bored in the agricultural Levin bits. But I remember seeing Anna as a saint, seeing her as being the victim. I went back to it last year, and realized that this is not what I remember at all. This is much darker, and the question of whether she is the heroine or the anti-heroine and how you’re meant to see her morally, was constantly a question in a way that I don’t remember from the first time I read it.
BN: The character of Anna is not entirely likeable, and at times she can be terribly selfish. At the same time, you don’t dislike her; she is a very multifaceted character. I can see how research is very important in order to capture Anna’s complexities.
KK: As soon as Joe decided to bring in the Levin/Kitty story more than is usually brought in in film adaptations, you suddenly think if you’re playing Anna as the heroine, that you have two stories that are doing the same thing. One ends up well and one doesn’t. But that’s doing the same thing, and I don’t think that’s the point of the book. I think Levin is the point of the book. Levin is hope, he is spirituality and that kind of love that Anna is not. Anna is the destructive love, the love that is painful and chaotic. I think as soon as you decide that you’re bringing that other part of the story in you suddenly have scope, or a very different take on Anna. A take that is more like the book. The story is one we understand today because people still want something they cannot have, still come up against social blocks and rules, and still have trouble communicating emotions to each other.