Wright speaks on bringing theatricality to ‘Anna Karenina’

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When Joe Wright, director of “Anna Karenina” eventually found the room in which we were to have our interview, he was 20 minutes late, and I was running out of tea. Slightly out of breath, he reached out to shake my hand. “Sorry, we went exploring the hills of San Francisco,” he says. After ordering an espresso, which made my choice of tea seem slightly 19th-century, our talk quickly moved to “Anna Karenina,” the English director’s latest film.

The film represents a return to the period drama (or novel adaptation) genre that catapulted him into international success with 2005’s “Pride & Prejudice” and the lauded 2007 film “Atonement.” “I had made ‘Hanna’ . . .but because it was set in a contemporary world, I felt confined by that,” he said. “I really enjoyed when making a period film the sense of it being a fantasy.”

Wright also felt it was time to reunite with two-time collaborator Keira Knightley, and thought Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” was the ideal vehicle for the reunion. Having secured an idea and a star, Wright approached veteran playwright and sometime screenwriter Tom Stoppard to pen the screenplay. After two months toying with the idea, Stoppard signed on to the project and went about adapting Tolstoy’s 800-page epic.

With Wright, Knightley and Stoppard all signed on, “Anna Karenina” looked set to be what Wright himself described as “a decent commercial proposition.” However, mere months from shooting, Wright felt a growing sense of confinement — that same sense that had brought him back to period drama in the first place. “I felt hemmed in by the historical re-enactment element,” he said. “All the ephemera of accuracy and the illusion of reality was stopping me getting to the essence of the story.” Drawn to the idea of setting the entire film in a single location, Wright decided to reimagine the story in a run-down theater — “it seemed to be an appropriate metaphor for the way in which the characters lived their lives.”

Wright’s cinema has always displayed a yearning for the theatrical. From the highly choreographed dance sequences in “Pride & Prejudice” to the famous five-minute tracking shot in “Atonement” loaded with theatrical vignettes of wartime horrors, he seems to find the most poignant moments of his films in the scenes that most closely intersect with the traditions of theater. Moving the entire staging of the film to the theater was only the next logical step: “It was more of an acceptance; it was something that had been growing in the back of my mind for some time and there was a moment where I just had to accept that this is what I needed to do and get on with it.”

For Wright, whose parents owned a run-down puppet theater in North London, the setting was something of a homecoming. “I think the puppet theatre was the thing that it was most like,” he said. “When I was growing up, I always felt the audience missed out. The most exciting stuff happened behind the scenes. The scene changes. The quick changes. They’re extraordinary worlds.” Wright’s famously languid camera, seemingly free of the confinement felt by its director, guides the audience through his fascinating theatrical world, from Anna and Karenin’s glorious house in the foyer to Oblonsky’s chaotic apartment in the prop-store, Wright finds appropriate homes for all his characters in his self contained world.

And what of Knightley’s performance — was Wright’s long-time collaborator at all thrown by this sudden change in direction? Not at all. “I saw a shift in (Knightley) over the last two years that I hadn’t expected and I was really amazed by,” says Wright. “She’s not afraid of the violence of women and to expose that. So many women try to be what men want to be.” Knightley’s fierce performance, which at times feels locked in an epic dance with Wright’s operatic camera, is the perfect counterpoint to the novel’s 19th-century woman, whom Wright feels Tolstoy was, “deeply ambivalent” toward. It’s a tough line that Knightly walks, but, given that Tolstoy associated the words, “murderer,” “criminal” and “guilty” with Anna’s sexual liberation, the gruesome intensity Knightley brings to the role seems entirely appropriate.

If the decidedly Siberian temperature of my tea was any indication, my time with Wright was almost up. His publicist made an intrusion into my own little theater and shattered the fourth wall of our conversation with the more temporal concerns of the day’s schedule and the film’s release dates. Wright, ever the gentleman, asked about Berkeley and seemed genuinely interested in the book I had under my arm, “The Governing of Britain, 1688-1848.” “I’m directing a play from that period: Trelawny of the Wells by Arthur Wing Pinero!” he said as he fixed himself a cup of tea, appropriately enough, from a large silver samovar.

Thomas Coughlan is the lead film critic. Contact him at [email protected]