Keira Knightley’s language was anything but prim and proper when she discovered what director Joe Wright had planned for “Anna Karenina,” their latest period drama together.
To hear Knightley tell it, some expletives were soundly dropped.
Knightley wasn’t swearing out of anger with Wright, who directed her to an Academy Award nomination for 2005’s “Pride & Prejudice” and to similar critical success on 2007’s “Atonement.” She worried that Wright’s unusual approach to Leo Tolstoy’s epic of doomed romance would make the hard-sell of a period drama even harder.
While “Pride & Prejudice” and “Atonement” were fresh, lively takes for an age that finds costume drama drowsy, Wright planned a wild and possibly off-putting ride on “Anna Karenina,” confining most of the action to a dilapidated theater where the actors would perform in a stylized cinematic ballet without the usual grand sweep of period-drama locations.
“The first thing I said was ‘Oh, (expletive)!’ I was like, well, people are really either going to love it or absolutely ... hate it,” Knightley said. “I also was going, ... you’re taking it and spinning it on its head and turning it into something that is potentially totally uncommercial. Into an experimental sort of art-house film. ... “I also went ... yeah. Let’s give it a go.’ ”
The result is a fluid story that unfolds as much like dance as film, with a brisk pace compared to most period stories and contemporary sensibilities next to earlier takes on “Karenina,” whose previous big-screen adaptations have featured Greta Garbo and Vivien Leigh.
Reality gives way to fantasy in the opening moment, as a barber approaches Anna’s brother, Oblonsky (“Pride & Prejudice” co-star Matthew Macfadyen), like a matador approaching a bull and shaves him clean with three lightning strokes of his razor. Walls roll aside, props rise up from trapdoors, a swirl of clerks in an office turns into a rush of waiters in a restaurant as Wright dispenses with realistic and time-consuming transitions in favor of a motion picture perpetually in motion.
The action in Moscow and St. Petersburg, where Knightley’s Anna forsakes her staid husband (Jude Law) in an affair with a young cavalry officer (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), shifts around an aging theater. The idea was inspired by Wright’s reading of historian Orlando Figes, who commented that 19th-century Russian socialites modeled themselves on Parisians and lived their lives as though on stage, emulating that ideal.
Wright has built a career emulating the ideal of the period drama, once a mainstay for movie audiences now mainly interested in futuristic action or stories of the here and now. But Wright keeps looking for fresh ways to tell those old stories to modern crowds.
“I feel that the stories themselves are rich and relevant,” Wright said. “The concern really is that the form that those stories are told in, it has become kind of stuffy and old-fashioned.” But he adds, “just because it’s set in the 19th century, it doesn’t mean it has to look like it was shot in the 19th century.”
One of the first people Wright had to win over on his bold approach to “Anna Karenina” was playwright Tom Stoppard, an Oscar winner for the “Shakespeare in Love” screenplay who had adapted Tolstoy’s novel with a conventional location shoot in mind.
Two months before production began, Wright decided to switch the action to a confined space and sprang it on Stoppard, saying he would only go ahead if his writer agreed.
“He came around with a big folder of storyboards, and the more I got into it, the more interested and finally excited I was about it,” Stoppard said. “It gives the movie a modern spirit, that’s what it does. It’s not the costume drama we’ve seen before.”
It’s not even the costume drama we’ve seen before from Wright and Knightley, who defied expectations with “Pride & Prejudice” and “Atonement.”
Knightley had just scored with “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl” and flopped as Guinevere in “King Arthur” when “Pride & Prejudice” came along, while Wright had directed only for television. So they looked like upstarts taking on Jane Austen’s best-loved novel.
After that worked, they raised eyebrows again with “Atonement,” based on Ian McEwan’s celebrated novel, which many considered unfilmmable because of its elliptical structure that spans six decades.
“Then that worked, too,” Knightley said.
For “Anna Karenina,” “There was a general feeling that if we’re all going to do this again, then we really need to push ourselves. The idea with this is we were very much walking hand in hand with total, absolute failure all the time. ... If it fails, it fails, but at least you know that everybody’s put everything into it.”
Keira Knightley stars as Anna in director Joe Wright’s bold, theatrical new vision of the epic story of love “Anna Karenina.”×
Keira Knightley stars as Anna in director Joe Wright’s “Anna Karenina.”×
Actress Keira Knightley and director Joe Wright on the set of “Anna Karenina.”×
Director Joe Wright on the set of “Anna Karenina.”×