The director talks about his fresh take on Tolstoy classic Anna Karenina.

Director Joe Wright is no stranger to adapting beloved works of literature, having previously brought both Jane Austen’s Pride And Prejudice and Ian McEwan’s Atonement to the screen. “I love making films based on classic literature,” says Wright. “I find that I learn a huge amount and that’s one of the reasons why I make films.” When it came to Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy’s epic tale of love set in Imperial Russia, Wright was not bound by expectations of what period films should be, taking the inspired decision to set much of the film in a large theatre.

Produced by Working Title Films, Anna Karenina stars Keira Knightley — working with Wright for the third time — alongside Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Kelly Macdonald, Matthew Macfadyen, Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Alicia Vikander, Olivia Williams and Emily Watson.

Though the story has been adapted for the screen several times Wright, whose credits also include The Soloist and Hanna, says he was not sure anyone had approached it in terms of a multi-stranded narrative or explored the idea that the novel is “a meditation on love in all its many forms”. He also wanted to exp-lore the ambivalence of the central character.

“I just think Anna has been held up as a kind of heroine/martyr to patriarchal society,” Wright explains. “And actually I find she has quite a role in her story, and that she is very human and she is manipulative and cruel and self-willed and selfish and mistaken, but also she refuses to be a hypocrite ‹ she has her own form of honour and truth.” Wright, who approached Working Title’s Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner about adapting the novel (Paul Webster also produces), brought on board Tom Stoppard, who had won an original screenplay Oscar for Shakespeare In Love. The writing process started with Wright and Stoppard talking about key ideas.

“I remember when Tom said quite early on that he thought love was a form of madness — that was a touchstone really,” Wright explains. “Then he would write up bullet points in terms of which theme would follow which, and then once he had a general idea of how it would work he went away to the country and sat down and wrote the thing by hand in blue ink over the course of six weeks. Then he delivered that and pretty much 85% of what was in the original draft was what stayed in the final screenplay.” Love was a focus when adapting Tolstoy’s classic novel. “It was really a case of, if there was a scene about love then it was in, and if it was about anything else then it was out,” he says. “Because I think audiences these days are less interested in rural farming practices of the 1870s.” Setting the film around a theatre also serves as a metaphor for the lives of the Francophile Russian aristocracy at the heart of the story. “I was very influenced by a book by Orlando Figes called Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History Of Russia,” Wright explains.

“In that book, he talks about St Petersburg society being this kind of strange performance in which everyone was trying to live out the aspirational world of Parisian cultureŠ I found that idea of this kind of collective performance fascinating because it also speaks to me about one of the central interests or themes of the novel, which is personal authenticity and how we try and play the roles we think we should play and how sometimes those roles don’t quite suit us.” After deciding to set the film in a theatre, Wright says, “The challenge we set ourselves was to not change a word of Stoppard’s screenplay. So that we were trying to find, as one would a play, appropriate ways of conveying what Stoppard had written within the confines of this single environment.” The approach also meant the film was given a quicker pace. “We were able to conflate time and [it gives] a kind of momentum as well, because I was concerned the film should not feel slow at all,” Wright explains.

Anna Karenina shot at Shepperton, with a large theatre set that operated 24 hours a day for 65 days. “When we weren’t actually filming in there, everything was getting changed over to the next set. To allow space for those changes we had another studio which had the underneath of the theatre and also the fly tower above the stage, and then another studio which had Anna and Karenin’s apartments.” The production also shot for several days in Russia and on Salisbury Plain and at Hatfield House in the UK.

Common ground

Anna Karenina sees Wright and Keira Knightley reteaming after Pride & Prejudice and Atonement. Both attracted awards attention, with Knightley nominated for an Oscar for Pride & Prejudice and a Bafta for Atonement; the latter also picked up seven Oscar nominations including best picture.

“Because we’ve known each other now for eight years or so, we have a certain history, a shared experience, so we can reference events or characters from our lives and say, ‘Oh, she’s a little bit like her’, or, ‘When this happened to me, it was like this’,” Wright says of working with Knightley. “And we have a kind of trust as well.” Wright put a lot of attention into the movement of the actors, wanting to work with a more physical style of performance. “I feel like modern cinema acting has become very, very entrenched in realism and naturalism,” he says.

The choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui worked with Wright and the actors throughout the process, not just on the dance sequences. “We spent three weeks in rehearsals just working really on movement, and that was where we developed ideas like this idea that aristocracy never had to lift a single finger to do anything for themselves and so Oblonsky can walk down a corridor and have his coat changed around him without actually having to stop,” Wright says. “Those ideas came out of that and what I tried to do was get all of that stuff so it almost became muscle memory, so once we were on set and doing the scenes, the actors are just concentrating on the truth of their performance.” The film has a very sumptuous look, something that stems from the choice of the theatre as the primary location. “Although I wanted something quite minimal in the sense we’re using primarily one location, I didn’t want it to have an austere aesthetic,” Wright explains. He says a lot of influence came from his parents’ puppet theatre in London.

The production was not just beholden to the period, taking what it liked but also combining later visual influences, drawing on 1950s couture for the costumes for example. Says Wright: “It was very heavily researched but then, for instance with the costumes, one could say we like the silhouette of the dresses of the period but all the detailing is way too fussy. And then I found a book of Christian Dior dresses from the 1950s and realised it was a very similar silhouette but somehow far more sexy, so we’d bring in lots of those references.”