Anna Karenina: Interview with Joe Wright and Tom Stoppard
Arriving in US theaters on November 16, 2012, “Anna Karenina” is acclaimed director Joe Wright’s new vision of the epic story of love, stirringly adapted from Leo Tolstoy’s great novel by Academy Award winner Tom Stoppard. The film marks the third collaboration of the director with Academy Award-nominated actress Keira Knightley and Academy Award-nominated producers Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, and Paul Webster, following their award-winning box office successes “Pride & Prejudice” and “Atonement.” The film also stars Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Kelly Macdonald, Matthew Macfadyen, Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Alicia Vikander, Olivia Williams and Emily Watson.
The time is 1874. Vibrant and beautiful, Anna Karenina (Knightley) has what any of her contemporaries would aspire to; she is the wife of Karenin (Jude Law), a high-ranking government official to whom she has borne a son, and her social standing in St. Petersburg could scarcely be higher. She journeys to Moscow after a letter from her philandering brother Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen) arrives, asking for Anna to come and help save his marriage to Dolly (Kelly Macdonald). En route, Anna makes the acquaintance of Countess Vronsky (Olivia Williams), who is then met at the train station by her son, the dashing cavalry officer Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). When Anna is introduced to Vronsky, there is a mutual spark of instant attraction that cannot – and will not – be ignored.
The enduring power of Leo Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina is summed up by “Anna Karenina” director Joe Wright: “Everybody is trying in some way to learn to love. When I read the book, it spoke directly to the place that I found myself at in life. You hope you are like one of the characters, and you realize that you have been like another of the characters. They are all perfectly true, and terrifyingly close.”
It was Wright who approached his long-time collaborators Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner, producers and co-chairmen of Working Title Films, about the potential of taking “Anna Karenina” to the big screen with their frequent leading lady Knightley starring. Academy Award-winning screenwriter and playwright Tom Stoppard was the only writer Wright had in mind to adapt the classic book.
Wright says, “Tolstoy wrote the novel to be accessible in terms of its emotions. His analysis of motivation and character is so extraordinary, so acute. In our conversations, Tom and I realized that we both felt the same way about the characters.”
With Stoppard, Wright explored every avenue of the story over many hours, stating that “this was an amazing opportunity to learn from a master. For me, every film is an education. Certainly Tom was well-versed in Russian history and culture and identity. We felt that we could get more to the heart of Anna, Levin, and all the characters by contemplating love among Imperial Russian society in the 1870s. I was also thinking about the movies in which Robert Altman masterfully interweaved intimate stories. The narrative threads we chose work as a kind of double helix, winding around each other in a multi-stranded portrait of a community.”
By the spring of 2011, the script was ready and location scouting was taking place across Russia and the U.K. Yet Wright still found himself wanting to take his version of “Anna Karenina” in a new direction, rather than following in the footsteps of previous adaptations by filming at established Russian locations – or retracing his own footsteps in stately homes across the U.K. where he had previously filmed. So it was that, some two months before the commencement of principal photography, the director made a bold decision to take a more theatrical approach in making an epic love story.
Stoppard elaborates, “There is love, mother love, baby love, sibling love, carnal love, love of Russia, and so forth. The word ‘love’ is central to the book, and to our movie. I decided not to work on including those parts of the novel that might be about something else. We are honoring the scope of the book. Tolstoy’s book packs a hell of a wallop. It was daunting going in, but I so enjoyed the work.”
Wright observes, “Anna is ‘the perfect wife,’ she’s ‘Madame Karenin,’ and she and her husband hold a certain place in society. Then, a bolt of lightning – in the form of another man – opens her up to another way of living, of loving, and of being.”
Tom Stoppard remarks, “Something happens to her which has never happened before, something which I would say she didn’t even know about. She has not lived a deprived life, but a life in which something has been missing.”
Recalling that two of his previous films were also not “another period movie,” Wright reflects, “I like exploring the form and being expressive. One of the things I enjoyed about making ‘Pride & Prejudice’ and ‘Atonement’ was that each of those films had a large portion shot in one location – which in fact engendered a lot of creative freedom. I thought, if I could set ‘Anna Karenina’ largely in one place, then what and where would it be?
“What came to me was a passage in [British historian] Orlando Figes’ [2002 book] Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia where he’s describing St. Petersburg high society as people living their lives as if upon a stage. Figes’ thesis is that Russia has always suffered from an identity crisis, not quite knowing whether it’s part of the East or part of the West. During the period Anna Karenina was written in and about, Russians decided they were definitely part of Western Europe and that they wanted to be cultured like the French.”
Stoppard notes, “Here was a society that tried to be the equal of Paris in opera, literature, and all the arts.”
Wright elaborates, “They dressed as French people and they read books on the etiquette of how to behave like a French person. Their ballrooms were often mirrored so that they could watch themselves and appreciate their own ‘performances’ as French people, and they were advised to keep one side of the mind French and one side Russian. The Russian side was always observing and checking the French side to make sure that you were behaving, or ‘performing,’ correctly. Their whole existence became a performance with imported ideas of decorum, manners, and culture. Anna plays the role of being a dutiful wife up until the point where she meets Count Vronsky, but everyone else in her circle is always acting. So I realized, ‘Okay, we could situate this film in a theatre.’”
From there, the concept crystallized; to present St. Petersburg and Moscow’s rarefied circles of the 1870s in all their theatricality, Wright decided that “the action would be taking place within a beautiful decaying theatre, which in itself would be omnipresent, a metaphor for Russian society of the time as it rotted from the inside. Yet we would also adhere to Tom’s adaptation, with the story taking place oblivious to the artifice surrounding it.
“The producers had amazing faith in me, but the person I was most scared of telling about this was Tom because he’d written this script which was brilliant and perfect and set in the way he’d envisaged the film. At first he was nervous, but then he came ‘round. I took his text and transposed it from real locations to the stylized location; every single event and word in his adaptation was shot.”
Stoppard remembers, “Joe told me he didn’t want to alter the script – aside from the scene, or stage, directions – but at first I didn’t know what I thought. He then came to see me with this scrapbook which contained the film as he now saw it. Seeing it, I put my money on him to pull this off.”
Wright reflects, “It was also a way to better express the essence of the narrative, and to get to the essence of the scenes; I would be treating Tom’s script in the way a theatre director would a play’s text. The heart of the story is the human heart. I am forever fascinated by why and how love works, and how sincere we are as human beings with our emotions.”
Stoppard muses, “In quite a number of upper-class aristocratic societies one could think of a fling, an adulterous affair, as being more or less sanctioned. This is not a particularly Russian phenomenon by any means; one could say it’s not unknown in Britain.
“The difference between what Anna does and what umpteen other people of her acquaintance might have done or been doing, is that it’s not a pleasant dalliance or a diversion. This woman was very young when she married, and has been married a good long time. For her, it is as though she is getting a late chance to live her real life. But doing so affects her standing in society. As it’s said, ‘She did worse than break the law, she broke the rules.’”
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