ABOVE: AARON TAYLOR-JOHNSON AND KEIRA KNIGHTLEY IN JOE WRIGHT’S ANNA KARENINA. IMAGE COURTESY OF LAURIE SPARHAM/FOCUS FEATURES
Director Joe Wright (Pride and Prejudice, Atonement), who grew up in and around his parents’ puppet theater in the London Borough of Islington, is rediscovering his stage roots with his fifth feature, an adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Written by Academy Award winner Tom Stoppard, Wright’s vision for the great 19th-century love story is a remarkable collision of stage and screen, finely manoeuvring each discipline’s essence—the physical structure and fabric of theater, enlivened by film’s demiurgic extent. In one scene, the entire auditorium is transformed into a horse race. In another, an ice rink. Elaborate murals swiftly glide in and out—what was moments ago a lavishly seductive ballroom, now, the somber dissolution of an unhappily married couple in bed.
Starring Keira Knightley as Anna, Jude Law as her duty-bound, plodding husband, Karenin, Aaron Taylor-Johnson as her sallow-looking lover, Vronsky, and Domhnall Gleeson as Levin, the cast, much like the film’s choreography, is in constant rotation. Rarely is one character’s plight made more sympathetic than another. It’s as though Wright is present throughout, standing above his miniature theater; a puppet master deploying and foreshadowing emotional beats.
DURGA CHEW-BOSE: It really started to snow yesterday and I thought, well, [Joe’s] brought the Russian winter to New York!
JOE WRIGHT: [laughs] Right, right. I’m so sorry about that!
CHEW-BOSE: In college, my professor insisted we read Anna Karenina near the end of winter, to help usher in spring.
WRIGHT: Aw, that’s nice. He’s a romantic! Which story did he consider to be a love story?
CHEW-BOSE: I think he was the most partial towards Levin.
WRIGHT: Me too.
CHEW-BOSE: But I do recall most of my class felt a nearness to Anna.
WRIGHT: Absolutely. She’s very human, Anna. She can be cruel and has violent emotions, but she also has a great humanity about her, and I think that without Levin, the story doesn’t really make sense. You need Levin’s sort of spiritual journey really to counteract Anna’s descent.
CHEW-BOSE: He anchors the narrative, especially in the way Tom adapted the novel, and the moments in which Levin returns.
WRIGHT: Yeah, yeah. I’m always happy to see Levin. But also with Anna, what Keira and I tried to do with her character is really create a portrait of a woman. You know, I think still, to this day, women are supposed to be nice and sweet, and passive, and I don’t know many who really are like that all of the time, hardly at all. That role that is put upon them no longer fits Anna. Her violence breaks out.
CHEW-BOSE: Similar to your other films, Anna Karenina is a story about a woman who, like you said, doesn’t fit within the bounds of society’s conventions. To a degree, she’s pushed to the margins and must fight. Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice and Hanna in Hanna are similar. What draws you to this type of strong-willed, restless heroine?
WRIGHT: It’s strange, you know. It’s not something someone sets out to do—I never really set out to make movies about strong fighting women, but it just seems to happen that way. I’ve certainly known some, and I think my sister was probably a big influence. I remember saying to Keira that Elizabeth Bennet reminds me of my sister. As we’re talking about, she has this kind of refusal to accept the preconceived patriarchal idea of what a woman should be. It’s funny, because I never meant it to happen this way with my films, but it seems to have happened. I find men odd. I don’t really understand men. I kind of feel like I understand women better than I do men, really.
CHEW-BOSE: The choreography in the film, not just the dancing, but also the movement in general of all the characters, and the sets too, creates this extraordinary sense of a continuous wave on screen. It’s captivating, because it becomes attuned with the audience’s own inherent rhythm. What were the kinds of conversations you had with your choreographer and your composer?
WRIGHT: Well, I conceived the film as being a ballet with words. I’m very interested in dance, and I’m very interested in how people express themselves through movement. And of course, cinema is a kinetic art form. It’s almost the point of cinema -it’s time-based and movement-based. I worked with a choreographer, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, who’s done a lot of work with Akram Kahn, who is a choreographer in the UK. He did that bit of Indian dance in the Opening Ceremony of the Olympics. Anyways, Larbi is kind of like a prophet of dance. His name, Sidi, means direct descendent of the prophet Muhammad, and so I always used to call him The Prophet. I also worked closely with the composer prior to shooting, so we had a kind of score that we were able to play on set. The actors were able to find their rhythm. And that’s not just the dance scenes -there were certain themes that we played over and over. I find rhythm to be the central pulse. You need a pulse in a film. If I see a film that doesn’t have rhythm, it’s like listening to music that doesn’t have rhythm; it doesn’t really work. My wife’s a musician, and music is a very large part of my life. I find that it puts me in touch with something that is divine and it helps me make sense of the world.
CHEW-BOSE: In the press notes, one of the things that struck out to me were your varied influences when imagining your adaptation—Robert Altman’s films and his penchant for characters with interwoven narratives; or more obviously, The Red Shoes. What other influences that might not be so clear, had an effect on your vision for Anna?
WRIGHT: I was reminded when I was working of the designer of Jan Švankmajer’s animations. He was a Czech animator and made films from bits of wood. His most famous film was a version of Alice in Wonderland and he’s often playing with scale, and his films have a very found object or handmade feel…
CHEW-BOSE: Sort of like the puppets you grew up with in your parents’ theater?
WRIGHT: Yeah, yeah. Exactly, exactly. So he’s played a large role. The Quay Brothers, too.
CHEW-BOSE: Do you have a part of the film that is your favorite?
WRIGHT: That’s difficult. I guess I love the ball because it’s very pure cinema. It could only be done in cinema. It couldn’t be done on stage or in radio or any other medium. My favorite moments in film are always moments that are inherently cinematic. I always get a bit depressed when people say my films are painterly, because I don’t want them to painterly, I want them to be cinematic.
CHEW-BOSE: In terms of how the film was shot, nearly in its entirety on a theater set and on an actual stage—were there days where you asked yourself, “What am I doing?”
WRIGHT: Every morning! I understood that what I was doing was potential professional suicide, and that I could fall flat on my ass with this. Every morning I woke up with fear but fear was a great motivator. I just practiced some breathing and went along with it! [laughs]
ANNA KARENINA IS OUT TODAY IN LIMITED RELEASE.