I’d love to say it was a ‘eureka’ moment, because that would be very dramatic and exciting. But it wasn’t a ‘eureka’ moment. It was more a moment of acceptance.”
The English director Joe Wright is talking about his new movie, “Anna Karenina,” and the precise instant when he knew that he would film Leo Tolstoy’s sprawling 1870s novel largely within the confines of a slightly run-down theater, presenting all the romance, tragedy, spirituality, politics, history and grandeur it contains as light opera, on a tiny jewel-box stage.
“There was a point when we were 10 weeks out from shooting and I couldn’t figure out, on lots of levels, how to make this film — on a practical, creative and financial level. So it was a moment, really, of saying, ‘Okay, well, I’ll just have to do what I’ve always wanted to do.”
What Wright has always wanted to do, basically, is take the mickey out of both the literalism and naturalism that have been the conventional cinematic approaches when dealing with period drama, with usually turgid or woefully tone-deaf results. When Wright made his feature debut in 2005 with “Pride and Prejudice,” he injected welcome verve into the staid Jane Austen adaptation industry; with “Atonement,” based on Ian McEwan’s bestselling novel, he experimented with subtle anachronisms, such as a controversial five-minute tracking shot surveying the chaotic evacuation at Dunkirk.
But with “Anna Karenina,” Wright, 41, takes his natural proclivities to even more theatrical extremes, introducing an element of artifice and stylization to Tolstoy’s story of marriage and its discontents in Imperial Russia that dramatically polarized audiences when the film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. In Wright’s production, Keira Knightley plays Anna; Aaron Johnson plays Vronsky, her lover; and Jude Law plays her cuckolded husband. With their supporting cast and 500 Russian extras, they move through the stage and wings of Wright’s imaginary theater in a swirling, often ingenious reimagining of the novel, at once miniaturizing its grand canvas but also capturing its most subtle philosophical essence.
The concept, Wright admitted during a visit to Washington, “was quite radical,” especially because he already had in hand a script by playwright Tom Stoppard and “was determined not to change the script at all. [I wanted] to set myself the limitation of the theater, and then find solutions in terms of film grammar to express what Tom had written.”
For example, in one scene, Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) has lunch with Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen), then leaves to visit Kitty (Alicia Vikander), a sequence that Stoppard wrote with traditional transitions involving carriages, entrances and exits. Wright compressed the action so that it all transpires in one space, with the set changing behind the players and a stage curtain standing in for the exterior of Kitty’s house. The approach is complex but also delightfully simple, as it focuses in on the pure emotion and expression of Tolstoy’s work, rather than its material trappings.
The theatrical metaphor, Wright adds, was utterly appropriate to the time period, when the Russian aristocracy was suffering from what he calls an identity crisis. “They really didn’t know where they stood between the East and the West. So they decided they aspired to the West, and in particular to Paris. So they spoke French and they wore the latest Paris fashions — they even had their ballrooms covered in mirrors so that they could observe their performances whilst interacting with each other.”
Performance, in the case of “Anna Karenina,” also has to do with moral agency, a subject that is explored not only through the title character’s heedless and ultimately self-destructive love affair, but in the story lines of the idealistic Levin and the angelic Kitty, as well as the philandering Oblonsky and his wife, Dolly (Kelly Macdonald). Wright admits that he hasn’t seen many previous film adaptations, “but I was very surprised to learn that most people left Levin out. Because he seems to be the point of it, really. Without Levin, you either end up with a very bleak tale of obsessive love, which I’m not sure is love at all, or you have to completely change who Anna is, into some heroine-martyr-victim, and she’s not that, either.”
Wright, who is married to the musician Anoushka Shankar, with whom he has a 20-month-old son, says that making “Anna Karenina” coincided with his own exploration of settling down. Because of that, he found a favorite line in the film. “I’m misquoting him, but it’s when Levin says something like, ‘Sex is given to us to help us choose the one person with whom to fulfill our human-ness,’ ” he says. “The only advice the film gives — and this isn’t me, but Tom Stoppard and Leo Tolstoy, but I concur — is this idea that you can’t apply the intellectual rationale to it. You have to learn to love the questions.”