Translating Tolstoy: Joe Wright brings daring approach to classic tale of 'Anna Karenina'


Anna Karenina, director Joe Wright's eye-popping take on Tolstoy's iconic novel, was among the more keenly anticipated films at this year's Toronto Film Festival. Following its screening, the bold adaptation—boasting a screenplay by Tom Stoppard—garnered mixed reviews; while Keira Knightley earned praise in the title role, there were comments on how the film (pick one) betrayed/distorted/truncated the novel.

Tolstoy's classic famously follows the beautiful wife of a highly placed government official, who falls hard for dashing cavalry officer Count Vronsky. As Stoppard sees it, “Something happens to Anna which has never happened before, something which…she didn't even know about.” But the affair separates her from her beloved eight-year-old son and scandalizes St. Petersburg society. Shunned as a “fallen woman,” Anna becomes resentful of Vronsky's social pursuits and, despite his reassurances, paranoid about his imagined infidelity. As I don't need to tell you, there's a train involved.

Considered a pinnacle of realism, Tolstoy's Anna delivers characters so vivid they set up house in your head. Previous film adaptations—including a 1935 version with Greta Garbo and Frederick March and a 1948 one starring Vivien Leigh—have gone with Tolstoy's naturalistic approach.

In his audacious rethink, Wright (Pride & Prejudice, Atonement) has mounted his Anna as a kind of stylized performance piece in a vast, derelict theatre in Russia. Periodically, the action jumps the artificial interiors to embrace the natural world beyond.

The film opens with the babble of an orchestra tuning up, as key players in the drama—set in Imperial Russia in 1874—enact disjointed scenes from their daily routines on a stage fronted by footlights. The synchronized movements of a herd of government bureaucrats (the world of Anna's husband Karenin, played by Jude Law) are as stylized and balletic as a work by Pina Bausch.

We're given fair warning: This is no conventional period drama. You either buy into it right away, or wonder: What the...? Or become seduced by Wright's arresting vision, a bit the way virtuous, married Anna gets worn down by Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson).
True to the novel, the fevered, theatricalized world of Anna and Vronsky is interwoven with the narrative of Kitty (Alicia Vikander) and Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), an idealistic landowner attached to the soil, whose belief in lifelong commitment acts as a counterpoint to the decline of Anna and Vronsky, cut off from a vengeful society and depleting their own passion.

Along with formal challenges, Wright offers viewers magnificent set-pieces: the ball where Vronsky (in white) and Anna (in black lace) unite as lovers in a rapturous waltz that foregrounds the erotic content of the male/female pas de deux in ballet; an ice-skating scene and a horse race where Vronsky's white mount comes to grief—both set in the artificial “outdoors” within the theatre. Influenced by artists ranging from Lars von Trier to Robert Wilson, Wright spotlights the theatrical artificiality of 19th-century Russian society—which fetishized French styles—by transporting Tolstoy's tale to a literal stage. This on a theatre built from scratch at the U.K.'s storied Shepperton Studios, no small challenge for Wright's longtime production designer Sarah Greenwood.

During the Toronto Fest I got a chance to sit down with Joe Wright to discuss his groundbreaking Anna, which Focus Features opens on Nov. 16. He's married to sitar player Anoushka Shankar (daughter of Ravi, half-sister of Norah Jones), speaks with an occasionally down-market accent, and despite the gauntlet of PR rounds was affable and energetic.

Film Journal International: How did you find the nerve, quite frankly, to rework Tolstoy's revered classic in such a radical manner?

Joe Wright: All artists have the right to fail. There's this lovely quote I have over my desk from Beckett: “Fail again, fail better.” That's very important to hang onto because it's too easy to live in fear of one's position within the industry. So really, I tried to forget about the prevailing paranoia and go: Okay, pretend this doesn't cost any money at all and pretend that no one is watching you. What would you do? How would you make the film? What would you want to see and enjoy and be challenged by?

FJI: Did you ever consider doing Anna as a naturalistic period piece?
JW: Yeah, yeah, yeah, right up until about two months of shooting we were planning to make a straight piece of naturalism and shoot it in locations around Russia and the U.K. But I was already looking to create a style of performance that was somehow more gestural and physical—though within the naturalistic locations. And there came a point where I felt, I can't do this. I feel like I'm treading the same ground I've trod before and that other people have trod before. I need to do something that challenges and excites me—formally.

FJI: So how did you come up with the idea of setting the film in a vast, decrepit theatre?
JW: I thought if I were to make this film in one location, what would it be? And then I thought of Orlando Figes' book Natasha's Dance, and how he describes Russian society of the time living as if upon a stage. They were suffering from a kind of identity crisis really, and appropriated Parisian lifestyles. So they would talk and dress as French, they had etiquette books on how to behave French. Their ballrooms were covered in mirrors so they could observe themselves performing in society. So there was this constant sense of social interaction as performance. Anna herself is performing a role that no longer necessarily suits her. Levin is rejecting the roles he's been cast in and is somehow looking for a more authentic expression of life. So all of those ideas fed into this metaphor of theatre.

FJI: I've never seen a treatment of a classic quite like this. Did you have any precedents?

JW: No, but I saw it really clearly in my imagination. To describe it I had to find references that would convey to the people I was working with what I was trying to achieve.
FJI: So who were your references and influences?

JW: I talked about [Michael] Powell and [Emeric] Pressburger and The Red Shoes quite a lot. I talked about theatre and dance. I talked about Meyerhold [the Russian director from the 1920s who experimented in nonrealistic theatre], and the idea that stylization is about subtraction, rather than decoration. I went back and started talking a lot about Eisenstein, because a lot of the actors in Eisenstein's movies were trained by Meyerhold.

I talked a little bit about Lars von Trier's Dogville, but I wanted a far less austere effect. And Visconti's The Leopard in terms of the ball scene. I talked about my parents' puppet theatre. But there's nothing that really described my vision for the film as a whole.

FJI: I saw touches of Pina Bausch.
JW: Yeah, absolutely. I worked with the choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui—he's half Moroccan, half Belgian, and an artist in residence at Sadler’s Wells. I had great tutors, including Stoppard, throughout this film. We rehearsed for four weeks. And most of the rehearsals were about physical interaction. I've always been fascinated by blocking and wanted to look at the line between blocking and dance. Because to me it's all dance, I don't quite understand where the line is drawn. The idea of how figures move in space and why they move in space I find utterly fascinating. In a way I can see the film as a ballet with words.

FJI: Did that kinetic vision influence your casting choices?
JW: I very specifically cast actors who had experience in physical theatre or dance.

FJI: Is that true of Aaron Taylor-Johnson?
JW: If you go on YouTube and look up “Aaron Johnson REM”—it's a video his wife Sam made for the band—he does this extraordinary dance. Very contemporary, of course. Alicia Vikander was a trained ballerina at the Royal Ballet School in Sweden. So I was very aware of casting and working with actors who had dance experience. Since people in high society of the time were dependent on the serving class, they can dress without moving. Stuff like that is all choreographed.

FJI: Like most viewers, I was blown away by Anna and Vronsky's dance in the ballroom scene, kind of the centerpiece of the movie. There's a great moment when he lifts her… You make explicit the erotic subtext of a traditional ballet pas de deux. How did you film that sequence?

JW: It was certainly the most difficult sequence of the movie to film. The physicality tells the story. There's practically no dialogue at all. Obviously the great dance sequence of any film in history is The Red Shoes. They put the camera on the stage in the dance. That was then picked up and used brilliantly by Scorsese in the fight sequences of Raging Bull, which I think were directly inspired by The Red Shoes.

Keira and Aaron rehearsed and rehearsed—for about a month, independently and together. Unfortunately, there was a lot more dance in the film in the first cut, but in the end I had to cut back; some of the producers felt I was going too much into the dance thing. So in the DVD extras there'll be lots more dance. That love scene—the first sex scene between them? That was choreographed as a complete dance. So the wide shots of that are exquisite.

FJI: What were Tom Stoppard's initial reservations about your approach to the material?
JW: [laughing] Could I pull it off? I suppose. And did it have intellectual integrity?

FJI: He thought it might not?

JW: We spent a day together with me explaining what I was doing and why I was doing it and at the end of that day he was satisfied. But I had to explain myself.

FJI: You work mostly with the same team from movie to movie. It's your fourth movie with Focus Features, your third with Keira Knightley. Sarah Greenwood is your longtime production designer. Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey was Academy Award-nominated for Atonement and so on. What's the advantage for you?
JW: I find the whole process of making a film totally terrifying—so to have the support of people I feel loved and accepted by is really important. They're also people I trust in terms of their artistic sensibilities.

FJI: I gather your next project will be a play.

JW: The next two projects—one at the Donmar Warehouse, one at the Young Vic. Trelawny of the Wells [Wright's stage directing debut], which is a very light comedy—and I can't wait. And the other is a play about Patrice Lumumba and the independent government of Congo. Both involve lots of dance.