Director Joe Wright and Keira Knightley have maintained a long standing relationship with Knightley appearing in a leading role in all three of his latest major motion pictures. With their third outing in Anna Karenina, Wright decided to throw Knightley for a loop, and cast her before he even told her what he was planning on doing with the film.
“I told her, and the first thing she said was ‘oh fuck,'” recalled Wright in an interview with Hypable. “Then she pretty quickly understood it. I think it made it more challenging, and Keira and I both work best from a place of being the underdog.”
There were a few conditions that Joe Wright had before he would make Anna Karenina, one being that Knightley would star as the titular character, and the other being that playwright Tom Stoppard would pen the adaptation.
Not many people know that although the final result ended up being “What if Anna Karenina were to take place in the visual world of theater?”, the original script by Tom Stoppard makes no reference at all to the unique set design and costume changes, nor does it even mention a theater.
“The idea was to take Tom’s screenplay as it was written and find solutions, find ways to express exactly what he’d written in the limited environment [of the theater],” explained Wright. “You find that the limitations liberate you creatively.”
When it came down to casting, Wright was tasked with rediscovering characters that not only would need to remain faithful to Tolstoy’s original novel, but would also need to stand separate from the dozens of other adaptations of Anna Karenina that are out there.
“Vronsky is about the only lead character who’s age isn’t described,” said Wright. “Vronksy is described as being a boy soldier. It was like detective work, I had to figure out what Tolstoy thought Vronsky was.”
When constructing the characters, he often found himself relying on the pages of the book, as well as his own personal experience.
“The way in which Vronsky falls in love seems to me to be sort of a young puppyish love, said Wright. “I remember when I was about eighteen, nineteen, I saw a girl in the shop and thought she was the love of my life.”
For those familiar with the books, the casting of Jude Law as Karenin might have turned some heads since he’s a character that normally functions as someone who isn’t quite as aesthetically gifted as the actor.
“Jude is a great character actor trapped in a leading man’s body,” said Wright. “So often he’s asked to be handsome and charming and dashing, and I think there’s a lot more to Jude than handsome, charming and dashing.”
In this adaptation, Law plays the role of Karenin very sympathetically, and it was because of this that Wright knew that Law would be perfect for Tolstoy’s character.
“There are no goodies or baddies in Tolstoy’s books, there are just flawed individuals,” said Wright. “Karenin needs to be someone that you can imagine Keira marrying when she was eighteen. She didn’t marry him for his money, she married him because it seemed like a good match.”
The most remarkable thing about Wright’s adaptation was the choice to set the whole ordeal inside of a theater. Actors move in and out of screen to become new characters, the main cast perform a number of on-screen costume changes, and the set pieces whirl around and transform themselves into the next scene without so much as an establishing shot.
“It was to express the idea that these people were performing roles in her life,” said Wright. “It’s no coincidence that the first time we see Keira, she’s getting dressed like an actress; putting on a costume. She goes out into the world, or family at home, and she tries to play a role she’s no longer suited to.”
Although the idea of theatricality in the upper class very much adheres to the themes in Anna Karenina, Wright revealed that the concept was always something he had wanted to do.
“This film, the aesthetic of this film, is probably closest to my upbringing than any other. I was brought up in a puppet theater in London.”
“My dad made the puppets and my mom made the sets and the costumes so it all had a very homemade feeling about it,” said Wright. “That’s what I was trying to create in this film.”
If our review of Anna Karenina is any indication, Wright succeeded with both his vision, and its relevance to the story. Anna Karenina is currently playing in theaters everywhere.