All the World’s a Stage for Joe Wright’s ’Anna Karenina’
There is something to be said about a Russian story that is made into a film by Hollywood three times (first as a silent movie in 1915, then in two acclaimed sound versions with Greta Garbo  and Vivien Leigh ) and by the BBC as a 10-part miniseries in the 1970s. Leo Tolstoy’s enduring story about passion, betrayal and hypocrisy amongst the St. Petersburg aristocracy has long been cited as one of literature’s most enduring classics. As recently as 2007, Time Magazine hailed it as "the greatest novel ever written."
In the novel, Anna, the wife of a high-ranking government official in St. Petersburg, meets Vronsky, a cavalry officer in a trip to Moscow and falls in love with him. The gossip around the affair shocks the aristocracy, embarrassing Anna’s husband Karenin, leading him to demand an end to her liaison. Instead she leaves him and her son to live with Vronsky, only to be snubbed by a society that feels she has gone to far. Considering that the story is set in 1874, where social appearances ruled and anyone living outside the norm would be ostracized, a woman who dared to live her dreams is doomed to tragedy.
That brings us to this 2012 adaptation, directed by Joe Wright ("Pride and Prejudice," "Atonement") with a script by Tom Stoppard ("Arcadia" on stage and "Shakespeare in Love" on the screen). That this film is lavish is understandable considering Wright’s previous work and the story upper-class trimmings.
What sets this version apart is the director’s choice of setting the entire story in a dilapidated theater. Entire sequences take place within and outside the proscenium, with Wright’s ever-moving camera creating a unique cinematic dynamic. In reviewing the film in the New York Times’ A.O. Scott acknowledges, "Mr Wright’s ’Anna Karenina’ is different. It is risky and ambitious enough to count as an act of artistic hubris, and confident enough to triumph on its own slightly - wonderfully - crazy terms."
For the casting options, Wright plays it safe by picking his frequent collaborator Keira Knightley to play Anna. Jude Law is delegated to playing the restrained yet dignified husband of the adulterer. Wright’s bold choice is to cast Aaron Taylor-Johnson ("Kick-Ass," "Savages") in the role of the dashing Count Vronsky, but this version will be remembered for its deliciously inventive staging.
EDGE spoke to Joe Wright about what went behind bringing the cautionary tale of love to life.
Setting in a theater
EDGE: We have to talk about your decision to set the story in a theater. What is behind this decision?
Joe Wright: I guess it is a desire to create an aesthetic for the movie that is somehow modern and relevant. It speaks to the themes of the movie as well. This idea that everyone plays roles for each other in society. The idea is that Anna was playing a role that no longer suits her, that of being a mother and a wife. This kind of violent passion that she has contradicts the role that she is supposed to be playing.
EDGE: Has this decision allowed you to be more creative or has it given you constraints?
Joe Wright: I think both are true. I think limitations are very useful because they liberate you creatively. They make you think harder and find more creative solutions.
EDGE: In ’Anna Karenina,’ you seem to suggest that we are attracted to things we cannot get. In the movie, we come to realize that the characters were not able to benefit from their union which they fought hard for. How is this appealing to you?
Joe Wright: The film is about love in all of its many forms. It is about forbidden love. It is about love realized -- the way that love can teach us to be human.
EDGE: The film has a tragic ending. Have you ever thought of changing up the ending like some filmmakers do to surprise the audience?
Joe Wright: No, you can’t do that. [laughs] I think if you are going to take on something like ’Anna Karenina,’ you have to be faithful to the novel. I think that this film, despite its setting in the theater, its form, its subject and theme, it’s incredibly faithful.
EDGE: Besides the story between Anna Karenina and the Russian officer Vronsky, there is also this love story between Levin and Kitty which is a stark contrast. How do you treat the two stories differently?
Joe Wright: The book is kind of two books in one. There is the fictitious story of Anna and the rather autobiographical portrait of Leo Tolstoy’s character of Levin. They balance each other. Levin kind of gets it right. Anna gets it wrong.
EDGE: This is your third film with Keira Knightley. Has there been some kind of shorthand that you have with her in working on her character?
Joe Wright: There is certainly a trust, and also a trust that when we disagree, we can move through it. Like siblings, like you may argue with a sibling, but you are still their sibling, and so you are still going to work on it. So there is a very close bond and a deep trust with each other, and respect as well.
Casting Aaron Taylor-Johnson
EDGE: How did you cast Aaron Taylor-Johnson to play this seductive officer Vronsky?
Joe Wright: I knew that I wanted Vronsky to be very young. I like the idea that he is younger than Anna. That kind of boy soldier and very idealistic. He is a character that when things unravel, finds himself way out of his depth. Aaron is one of the best young actors in his generation. He also has that kind of physicality which I think is very important. There is something quite animalistic about his physicality.
EDGE: About Anna’s character, she is essentially somebody who chooses to leave her husband and child to pursue her love, how do you make her character likable or relatable?
Joe Wright: I am not interested in making her entirely likable. I feel that she is culpable and she is somewhat of an anti-heroine, rather than a heroine. She does things that I find to be morally reprehensible, but also, I love her. Her refusal of hypocrisy, I find kind of extraordinary, as well as her strength. So I would be interested in highly ambivalent characters. I am not interested in the typical black-and-white, goodies and baddies, but rather the complexities of human nature.
"Anna Karenina" is currently in theaters.
Watch the trailer to Anna Karenina: