Director Joe Wright On Tolstoy's Iconic Adultress

Nov 16, 2012
Originally published on November 16, 2012 1:47 am

Leo Tolstoy's epic novel Anna Karenina has captivated readers since the 1800s — and movie directors have been among the intrigued, adapting the story over and over.

The latest is from director Joe Wright, who with Pride and Prejudice and Atonement to his credit certainly knows his way around a literary adaptation. Those films starred Keira Knightley, who has worked with Wright once again as the story's tragic heroine.

The film tells the tale of the titular Anna, a Russian socialite trapped in a loveless marriage. After first resisting the dashing Count Vronsky, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, she falls for him, betraying her husband in a doomed loved affair.

In the movie, Wright chose to have much of the action take place in a theater, on the stage. A society ball, a horse race, a field of flowers, arguments, intrigue and lovemaking all happen under the proscenium arch — as well as backstage and in the rafters.

Wright tells NPR's Renee Montagne that the decision to frame the story that way was about breathing new life into the classic Russian romance.


Interview Highlights

On why he decided not to shoot on location

"Well, originally the screenplay written by Tom Stoppard was a fairly literal translation. It was set in various palaces around Russia. And so we were out on location scout, being shown around these incredible palaces, and then someone would say, 'Well, we've shot seven Anna Kareninas here before.' Or, looking at locations in the U.K., and people would say, 'Well, we've made, you know, three Keira Knightley period movies here before.'

"And so I began to feel like I was treading the sort of ground that I — I or others — had trod before. So I wanted to find a way of telling this story that was aesthetically perhaps a little bit more modern, and a way of stylizing the piece that would allow me to be a bit more expressive with the characters' emotions and internal landscapes."

On incorporating the theater into the film's design

"Once I decided that I wanted to set it in one single location, I had to think about what that location would be.

"I discovered that Russian society of the 1870s was really sort of experiencing a kind of identity crisis. They weren't quite sure where to place themselves — whether they were Eastern or Western — and they chose to appropriate a French mode of living. So they all spoke French, they wore the latest Paris fashions, the ballrooms that they frequented even were mirrored completely so that they could observe themselves. So they really lived their lives as if upon a stage.

"So in terms of society, the theater felt like an appropriate metaphor. But also in terms of Anna's story ... what the book is about for me is about finding an authentic form of life, and the roles that we play, and the roles that are sometimes no longer appropriate."

On Anna Karenina as a character

"Anna is not a kind of heroine. In fact, she's probably an anti-heroine. I think Tolstoy set out to write a character who he would hold up to be culpable and morally corrupt. But as he wrote the book, it's as if Anna kind of rose up off the page in front of him and he began to fall in love with her.

"And so I think Tolstoy probably had quite an ambivalent relationship with Anna. And that for me is the enduring fascination of the novel. That she is a character who is, at times, cruel and yet, at times, she is also — she's not a hypocrite, and she believes in something beautiful. And so Anna is both terrible and wonderful, and I think that's why I love her."

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Leo Tolstoy's epic Russian novel "Anna Karenina" has captivated readers since the 1800s - and in more recent decades, has also captivated movie directors have adapted it over and over. The latest is from director Joe Wright.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Joe Wright has tackled literary adaptations before - "Pride and Prejudice" and "Atonement." Both starred Keira Knightley, as does the new "Anna Karenina," the high society beauty who's never known passion. And after first resisting the dashing Count Vronsky, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Anna falls for him, betraying her stiff and pious husband in a doomed loved affair.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ANNA KARENINA")

KEIRA KNIGHTLEY: (as Anna) If you have any thought for me you will give me back my peace.

AARON TAYLOR-JOHNSON: (as Count Vronsky) I've had no peace for years. There can be no peace for us, only misery and greatest happiness.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Anna's great happiness and misery have always been at the center of the movies, though in the novel, another character was central to Tolstoy. That was Levin, a wealthy landowner who craves a simple life and pines for the young Russian princess Kitty. Though the novel is woven with scenes of feminism, family, and farming, the theme Wright chose to embrace was love.

JOE WRIGHT: For me, the book is a meditation on love and considers the potential for love to reveal to us our humanness. And so everyone in the story is loving in a different way, is trying to learn how to love. Anna's love is fueled by a kind of immediate passion and it's a very physical, carnal love.

Levin's love - and this is why Levin is so important - balances that. And Levin's love is an aspiration toward something more spiritual. There's a line in the film where Levin says that he believes love is given to us so that we may find the one person with whom to fulfill our humanness. And that was a very key line for me. Although the film is called "Anna Karenina," for me, it's very much an ensemble piece.

MONTAGNE: In the movie, Joe Wright chose to have much of the action of that ensemble take place in a theater, on the stage. A society ball, a horse race, a field of flowers; arguments, intrigue, lovemaking all happen onstage, backstage and in the rafters. Tell us about the way you have filmed the story. Why did you decide not to shoot on location?

WRIGHT: Well, originally, the screenplay, written by Tom Stoppard was a fairly literal translation. It was set in various palaces around Russia. And so we were out on location scout, being shown around these incredible palaces, and then someone would say, well, we've shot seven Anna Kareninas here before. Or, looking at locations in the U.K., and people would say, well, we've made, you know, three Keira Knightley period movies here before.

And so I began to feel like I was treading the, sort of, ground that I - or others - had trod before. And so I wanted to find a way of telling this story that was aesthetically perhaps a little bit more modern, and a way of stylizing the piece that would allow me to be a bit more expressive with the characters' emotions and internal landscapes.

MONTAGNE: So, I mean, the theater itself is interesting because it is as if the characters are onstage, mostly in their public life.

WRIGHT: Exactly. I mean, the idea - once I decided that I wanted to set it in one single location, I had to think about what that location would be. And reading a book called "Natasha's Dance" by Orlando Figes, which is a cultural history of Russia, I discovered that Russian society of the 1870s was really sort of experiencing a kind of identity crisis.

They weren't quite sure where to place themselves - whether they were Eastern or Western - and they chose to appropriate a French mode of living. So they all spoke French, they wore the latest Paris fashions. The ballrooms that they frequented even were mirrored, completely, so that they could observe themselves. So they really lived their lives as if upon a stage.

So in terms of society, the theater felt like an appropriate metaphor. But also in terms of Anna's story and what the book is about, for me, is about finding an authentic form of life, and the roles that we play, and the roles that are sometimes no longer appropriate.

MONTAGNE: In one scene that's set not on stage but actually in the three-dimensional home of the Karenin and his wife, Anna Karenina, he's played by Jude Law, she of course by Keira Knightley. He's berating her, after a party, for being indiscreet.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ANNA KARENINA")

JUDE LAW: (as Karenin) You and Count Vronsky attracted attention tonight.

KNIGHTLEY: (as Anna) You don't like when I don't talk to people and you don't like it when I do.

LAW: (as Karenin) I didn't notice anything myself but I saw everyone else noticed. I consider jealousy to be insulting to you and degrading to me. I have no right to inquire into your feelings - they concern only your conscience - but it's my duty to remind you that we are bound together by God. And this bond can only be broken by a crime against God.

KNIGHTLEY: (as Anna) I have nothing to say to you.

MONTAGNE: This scene suggests something, which is Anna Karenina is both a sympathetic character and also someone who, at times, seems willful and self-destructive.

WRIGHT: Mm-hmm. Totally. Anna is not a kind of heroine. In fact, she's probably an anti-heroine. I think Tolstoy set out to write a character who he would hold up to be culpable and morally corrupt. But as he wrote the book, it's as if Anna kind of rose up off the page in front of him and he began to fall in love with her.

And so I think Tolstoy probably had quite an ambivalent relationship with Anna. And that, for me, is the enduring fascination of the novel. That she is a character who is, at times, cruel and yet, at times, she is also - she's not a hypocrite, and she believes in something beautiful. And so Anna is both terrible and wonderful, and I think that's why I love her.

That's why I relate to her, and that's why I think women over the decades have related to her too. She's complicated and she's very human.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

WRIGHT: Thank you very much indeed.

WERTHEIMER: Joe Wright, who directed the new movie "Anna Karenina" out today.

INSKEEP: And was talking, of course, to our own Renée Montagne. It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

WERTHEIMER: And I'm Linda Wertheimer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.