Joe Wright, the director behind last year’s Hanna, Pride and Prejudice (2005) and Atonement (2007), has taken criticism for his latest, most ambitious project yet: a Keira Knightley-starred adaptation of Anna Karenina set in the quite literal context of a stage, with the men and women of Tolstoy’s novel who act out their grand and misguided passions merely players upon it. But the choice Wright makes goes deeper than the level of style, framing the age-old story in a context of losing, growing into, and mistaking our central humanness.
You’ve spoken about a line from an Orlando Figes text giving you the inspiration to set Anna Karenina on a stage.
JOE WRIGHT: I was thinking about Anna Karenina and what it was about. I kind of wanted to make a film of it. So I approached Tom Stoppard and asked if he’d right the screenplay because I didn’t think anyone else could really do it. And he agreed, and wrote a very naturalistic screenplay which is set all in palaces around Russia, and it was only two or three months before starting shooting that I came up with this idea of setting the whole thing in the theater, and that was the result of different concerns and thoughts. I wanted to cut the crap, if you like. To make a film that focused on the essence of the characters and their dilemmas. I was reading a guy called Meyerhold, who was a Russian theater director in the post-revolution period. He was killed by Stalin. He describes stylization as being the subtraction of surface, rather than decoration. In an attempt to get to the essence. So I decided I wanted to set the film in a single location and limit myself to that location. It was then that I was reading Figes, and he talks about the Russian society of the time living their lives as if upon a stage, this kind of performance they gave of French high ideals. It was from that that I decided that the appropriate single location would be the theater.
So that idea of the peasants being in the flys while the aristocrats play out their drama on the main stage…
I liked the idea that the peasants were like the stagehands. They were the ones that made everything work. It was this strange relationship between the peasants and the aristocracy where without the aristocracy the peasants wouldn’t have been able to eat, but without the peasants, the aristocracy wouldn’t have been able to feed themselves.
In other adaptations when they try to trim down the plot, Levin is usually the first thing to go.
But Levin is the point. I think the title is very misleading. I think the book could be called ‘Levin’. Or it could be called ‘A Group of Interesting People Battling with Issues Around Love in 1870s Russia’. As a caption. So for me, without Levin, there is no story. The balance between these two characters’ journey is the very crux of it.
It’s like when people try to adapt Hamlet and they cut out Fortinbras.
Exactly. What people seem to is cut Levin, and then what they’re left with is a very bleak tale of a love that is obsessive and selfish and deeply flawed, so they have to kind of elevate that love and elevate Anna to a place that Tolstoy didn’t intend. They have to make her this great heroine, and this romantic, idealized love between her and Vronsky, and that she’s martyred by society, and then she becomes a kind of proto-feminist character. That’s not the point, that’s not who she is! In a way, that’s to deny her her violence and her womanhood. I think the triumph of the book is its incredible detailed observation of character. And it seems to me that what’s been lost before, often, is this kind of layered character, this character who is cruel, and her emotions are violent, and yet she is also not a hypocrite, and she also has this wonderful belief in what she believes to be love. It’s like, I speak for myself, but, you meet someone, you fall in love with someone, there’s this amazing kind of period at the beginning of the relationship which is completely about lust and devouring each other. And then that fades away and something else takes over, something possibly more…spiritual? I can’t say that word without making a stupid face. And I’m not talking about religion at all. But she mistakes that for love, that early passion. And that’s, I think, a mistake on her part.
And with Kitty it’s the opposite, even though she seems the more naïve character.
But Levin understands. There’s a line in the book and film where he says that love or sex is given to us so that we may find the one person with whom to fulfill our humanness. That’s the point, I think. That’s what I take away from the novel. But Anna’s love doesn’t fulfill her humanness. It’s a blessing, she’s been married ten years, she’s in a relationship with someone who she doesn’t connect with, she’s probably never had an orgasm. She’s overrun by this amazing kind of violent passion and I think that one of the things that has made her such an enduring character culturally is that violence. People don’t like violent women. They like their women to be nice and passive. But from my experience, that’s not what women feel. So they’re constantly trying to play a role that male society has imposed upon them. And that role doesn’t fit. That’s what Anna is battling with. And she’s not weak. Keira came up with a really interesting point when we were talking about the suicide. She said that the suicide was a shy person’s form of homicide. That it was an angry gesture, not an acquiescence. Not a giving up, but a violent statement. I think that when she came up with that that kind of unlocked the whole journey for us.