The curtain rises. The orchestra comes to life. Tragedy commences. At first glance, everything about the holiday movie extravaganza Anna Karenina seems familiar.
Then, its well-known characters, the unfaithful wife Anna (Keira Knightley), her handsome lover Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and her principled but stiff husband Alexei (Jude Law) enter the stage and British filmmaker Joe Wright’s adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s 1877 novel swiftly takes a turn for the daring.
Wright makes full use of his art school studies and puppet theatre upbringing and breaks down cinema conventions for the feature, in theaters now.
Wright sets his Anna, the 12th feature film adaptation of Tolstoy’s Russian tale of infidelity, jealousy, intolerance, and aristocratic society, in a grand theatre built on a Shepperton Studios soundstage outside London.
For his unique take on literature’s top tragic love story, Wright combines stagecraft with moviemaking by filming the epic drama on a period playhouse stage and then shattering its walls and pulling back its curtain to blur the boundaries between players and audience.
It’s innovative filmmaking but not the CGI variety. This is handcrafted, touchable, carpentry shop reinvention.
"I’m not very good at digital media," Wright says, sitting alone in a room high atop Toronto’s Park Hyatt Hotel. "I don’t really understand it. I was brought up in a puppet theater and attached to the puppet theater was the workshop and attached to the workshop was our house. We made stuff and I loved that process. I love the whole physical process and the smell of wood and glue. Having things materialize in front of me is exciting. It’s relaxing as well."
Of course, audiences expect beautiful work from the 39-year-old director of features Pride & Prejudice and Atonement as well as the one of the year’s most-talked-about ads, Brad Pitt’s moody plugs for Chanel No 5.
After accumulating gushing reviews for Anna on the fall festival circuit, Wright looks to be an Oscar nominee shoo-in as do longtime muse Knightley as the sensuous Anna and Law as the unforgiving Alexei.
With the sound of thunderous applause still ringing in their ears, it’s easy for Wright and his company to embrace the movie-inside-a-theatre-shot-as-a-movie concept as if it was the plan all along.
Wright admits his Anna rose out of financial necessity with a production budget incapable of funding playwright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard’s sprawling script scheduled for multiple locations throughout Russia.
With naturalistic storytelling shoved aside due to dollars and cents, Wright says he embraced his creative fearlessness and aimed to make Anna Karenina a stage-built, multimedia experience—a creative chance necessary to save the film.
"I have a card with a quote from Samuel Beckett above my desk, 'Try again. Fail Again. Fail better,' and I think filmmakers and artists have a right to fail," Wright adds, tugging on the sleeves of his dandy, dark denim suit. "Without failure there’s no innovation. You do have to be fearless. You have to accept you might land flat on your ass but it’s worth it. That ride, that thrill is what makes us get up in the morning.
"I always had the idea in the back of my mind that I wanted to make a film in this stylized way. When I realized we didn’t have enough money to shoot the film in all these wonderful palaces around Russia and all our budget would be spent on airfares and hotel bills, I accepted I would have to take that leap and make the film I [have] envisaged for a while."
Every detail matters throughout Anna Karenina with Wright providing revisionist tweaks throughout the movie in order to distinguish his Anna from the many previous adaptations.
The crisp white military uniform Aaron Taylor-Johnson wears as Vronsky looks like something Wright and costumer Jacqueline Durran borrowed from Richard Gere in An Officer and a Gentleman.
As Anna, Knightley first appears in a pearl white corset that would fit in at a La Perla boutique and she continues to make more costume changes than a Vegas headliner.
Vronsky and Anna dance but not the classic waltz one expects in an Imperialist Russia-set drama but something shockingly modern with expressive arm movements inspired by a Twyla Tharp piece and choreographed by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui.
An ice-covered steam locomotive bursts onto the stage with its pistons continuing to churn. A steeplechase unfolds courtesy of William Kentridge-inspired horses. Busy corporate clerks shuffle and stamp official paperwork with a musical rhythm that would please the cast of Stomp. Then, as if to emphasize the surreal nature of his set design, Wright also shoots scenes involving the lovelorn landowner Levin in northern Russia.
All of it combines to make Wright’s Anna vital, entertaining, and for star Jude Law, a brave mix of cinema magic and stage design.
"It didn’t feel strangely that we were either in a play that was being filmed or a film of a play," Law tells the audience at the film’s North American premiere, held ironically at Toronto’s elegant, 99-year-old Elgin Theatre. "It felt like we were using a new language and that’s why this piece is so extraordinary."
Wright and I catch up a few weeks later via phone while he works out of New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel.
After watching the movie with audiences for close to two months, Wright is more confident that his lush, theatrical visuals match perfectly with the searing emotion of Tolstoy’s story.
Like his hero Beckett, he wasn’t afraid of failure and his daring paid off with his most spectacular film to date.
In Anna Karenina, everyone knows Tolstoy’s story ends badly for Anna but Wright extends his version to a poetic image of Alexei and his young son Serhoza in a field of tall grass that fills the auditorium. It’s distinctly sunny, cheery and yes, fearlessly optimistic that any obstacle can be overcome.
The same is true for Wright—following Anna and his Brad Pitt spots for Chanel No. 5, he wants to make good on a previous offer to produce an album for a British musician. He talks about reuniting with Anna Karenina choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui on a new project and collaborating with his newlywed wife, the acclaimed sitar musician Anoushka Shankar on a project.
Taking his beloved Beckett quote about failure to heart, Wright is busy preparing for his first theatrical gig, directing the Arthur Wing Pinero comedy Trelawny of the Wells for Donmar Warehouse in London. He’s never directed a stage play before and to do it for the first time in the spotlight of London’s West End is risky, which makes him very, very excited.
"I might fall flat on my ass but whatever happens I will learn something and be able to take that forward to the future."