Anna Karenina is a story that has seen countless retellings in various art forms, but Joe Wright’s unique adaptation starring Keira Knightley has chosen to revamp, respin, and revolutionize the story by setting it inside of a voyeuristic bubble of theatricality. In an interview with Hypable, director Joe Wright and star Keira Knightley explore this decision and discuss the general madness that is Anna Karenina.
Anna has long been heralded as one of the more complex and confusing characters in the history of literature, so the pressures behind accepting such a role are naturally high. Knightley was introduced to the character when she first read Anna Karenina at the age of nineteen. As a frame of reference, she filmed Pride and Prejudice when she was eighteen.
It turns out that age has very a peculiar way of changing your life view, because Knightley remembers looking at the character of Anna very differently. “When I first read it when I was nineteen,” recalls Knightley, “I only remember her being innocent. I don’t remember judging her at all or seeing her in any way guilty.”
After she got the role, she read through the book again before the start of shooting only to realize that Anna was a much different person that she had originally thought. “I see her being much darker,” said Knightley. “Her moral culpability is constantly in question. I think she is held up to be condemned at certain points. I also think she’s held up to be loved and to be understood and to be sympathized with.”
Anna is judged as guilty of a number of cultural and personal offenses in the story, but Knightley wanted the character to serve as a reminder to the viewer that they shouldn’t judge her just for sinning differently than they do.
“She’s a terrifying character, and she’s terrifying because you do judge her,” said Knightley. “You try and throw stones at her, then you go ‘Am I any better than her?’ And I think the answer for everybody is no. Are we all occasionally deceitful? Yes. Are we all occasionally manipulative? Yes. Do we all hurt the people we love the most? They’re the people we hurt the most. None of us have the right to judge her, and yet we do. And it’s terrifying.”
As it turns out, the story of how Joe Wright’s unique adaptation of Anna Karenina was first conceived, and how Keira Knightley came to inhabit one of the most coveted roles of all-time, began with a conversation.
“We [herself and director Joe Wright] had a conversation when we were doing Atonement about great female characters and how many there are, and Anna Karenina definitely came up in that conversation. So he phoned me about two years ago when I was working on A Dangerous Method, and he went ‘Anna Karenina?’ and I went ‘Yup!’ and he said, ‘Okay, we’ll only do it if Tom Stoppard does the adaptation.'”
As we now know, Tom Stoppard ending up penning the shooting script, and Keira went on to star in Joe Wright’s adaptation that, surprisingly, wasn’t always meant to be set in a theater.
“It was going to be completely naturalistic telling,” revealed Knightley. “It didn’t turn into this stylized thing until ten weeks before we started shooting when he phoned me up and said ‘Uhm, I’ve got something to tell you.'”
That’s right, the enrapturing veneer that fuels Joe Wright’s astonishingly refreshing vision was a surprise move made by Wright just a few months before they were meant to start filming.
“I went to his office and it sort of like this was this madman’s lair with weird drawings and storyboards everywhere. And he said ‘Right, we’re going to set it in a theater.'”
According to Knightley, director Joe Wright always manages to have a surprise up his sleeve, but she wasn’t expecting something quite so drastic for Anna Karenina.
“Even when you look at Pride and Prejudice, it was deeply naturalistic in that all the hemlines were a bit off and there was mud on everything, and Atonement was the infamously unfilmable novel,” said Knightley.
“So I always knew there was something else he was going to bring out [for Anna Karenina], I just wasn’t expecting it to be that.”
Even when it comes down to the tragic figure of Anna herself, Knightley had to put herself in the position where the act of adultery wasn’t just okay, it was almost expected.
“I think it’s completely understandable,” said Knightley. “You have a woman that’s been married since she was eighteen, she gets to twenty-eight she’s never had an orgasm, she’s never experienced romance. Of course she suddenly feels lost for the first time, she suddenly has a taste of romance for the first time, and she equates that with love and only that with love.”
“She doesn’t see that there are many forms of love and that that is a honeymoon period that will change into something else,” said Knightley. “That’s her great tragedy, as soon as that honeymoon period bit starts to change, she thinks that love has disappeared.”
Knightley went on to explain how the costuming and design elements that went into the film also represented Anna’s tragedy. “She was a caged bird,” said Knightley. “So that idea of the symbol of the cage, being that and the cage underneath the dress that you see at the end, and then the veils, the idea of keeping death close to her at all times, so she’s wrapped in fur. She’s got dead birds in her hair.”
In case those of you at home are wondering why Knightley always seems to hit the big screen in sweeping period dramas or epic fantasies, she finally has an answer as to why she chooses those roles in particular.
“Your imagination is required instantly in a period film, because it’s a world that you don’t know, with rules you don’t know,” said Knightley. “I certainly relate to characters on an emotional level very differently in period pieces or sci-fi pieces or fantasy pieces than I do in pieces that are more voyeuristic and present us with the world that we know. I think that’s a very different relationship with the story.”
Funnily enough, Knightley’s next feature is a film set in modern times, so you can either see her in Anna Karenina, or in Jack Ryan next year.