A marriage of inconvenience

Text: Mark Pilkington Fotos:

Keira Knightley is Anna Karenina – the tragic Russian heroine who has previously been portrayed by the likes of Greta Garbo and Vivien Leigh. Could this be the film that cements her status as a Hollywood icon?

Joe Wright’s adaption of Anna Karenina will come as a surprise to many who see it. For those expecting a standard costume drama, you may wish to prepare yourself for something a little bit different. With its breathtaking sets and dazzling camerawork, the award-winning director has gone to great lengths to bring us a striking and innovative feature in what could have easily been Pride & Prejudice mark two.

Of course, there are still similarities between Anna Karenina and Pride & Prejudice (2005). Not only do they both share the same director, but thanks to Joe’s influence, the period dramas also include many of the same cast and crew, including a certain Keira Knightley in the leading role.

The Anna Karenina of the film’s title is a troubled Russian noblewoman, trapped in a loveless marriage to a husband who doesn’t understand her (played by Jude Law), who finds herself swept off her feet when she meets a gallant cavalry officer (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). But would it be fair to say Anna Karenina is an adulterator or a freedom seeker?

“I think she is a bit of both,” the soon-to-be-married Miss Knightley explained to us, when we met her recently in London. “I think she is absolutely a freedom seeker, but she is also deceitful and manipulative. She is a tragic soul because she can never see what is right in front of her. Anna Karenina is about somebody who breaks their own moral code. She feels trapped and claustrophobic, so you can understand why she acts like she does.”

The film is based upon the novel of the same name which was originally written in 1877 by Leo Tolstoy. Since then it has gone on to be one of the most adapted books, having featured in countless films, plays and operas. “I’d read the book before, when I was in my late teens or early twenties and it was quite weird because I just remembered it as this incredible romance… this sweeping, kind of beautiful thing. So, when we first started to talk about it that was my memory of what it was. I read it again last summer just before we started shooting and was surprised by just how dark it was!”

It was this ‘dark side’ to the book that the film’s producers wanted to convey in the movie, with many of the previous adaptions having gone out of their way to portray Anna in the most positive light possible. “Joe and I both had big discussions about not wanting to simplify her and not wanting to make her too easy,” the actress divulges. “I don’t think that’s the point of her. I think she’s this incredibly complex, strange, dual-like creature and we wanted to bring all of that out as much as possible.”

Having been portrayed by the likes of Greta Garbo and Vivien Leigh in the past, Anna Karenina is an iconic character and is a lot to take on for even the most seasoned actor. Keira is quick to point out, though, that she felt more pressure playing Elizabeth Bennet in Pride & Prejudice than she ever did during this film’s production. “I think taking on any character is frightening and particularly so when there’s been so many different versions of it and it’s a character that’s so well known. I think actually playing somebody like Elizabeth Bennett is more terrifying because it’s a character that people love, or women love, and they fall in love with and they see themselves as,” she points out. “People don’t see themselves as Anna. They don’t have this love for her. They see her as this strange creature. And from that point of view it’s not as terrifying – but there’s always a responsibility, particularly when it’s a story that’s been done so many times.

“I have to say I haven’t seen all the versions, I’ve only seen the Greta Garbo version and I saw the TV movie – the Helen McRory version – which I thought was wonderful. But I hadn’t watched them again and again and again and again. They weren’t something that I had massively in my head. When I read the book I remember them as being incredibly romantic, so it was sort of quite freeing actually, re-reading the book and seeing them in a completely different way. I sort of felt you could re-write it and do something that was not simply playing her as the heroine, but also playing her as the anti-heroine kind of at the same time.”

Helping to convey the different layers of Anna Ka-renina’s personality are the many visual touches that are present throughout the film, with her life portrayed as a make-belief theater, and the choice of costumes Anna wears carrying significance and meaning. Keira explains how she worked closely with the costume designer, Jacqueline Durrant, to help make her character visually striking. “I have worked with Jacqueline before on Pride & Prejudice and Atonement. The concept we had for Anna was as a bird trapped in a cage. The idea was for her to be constantly surrounded, and the feathers she wears symbolize a bird that is trying to fly but can’t … We worked a lot on the symbolism for the clothes she wore. The diamonds that she wears are the hardest of the stones, the only colour that we had in the jewelry was a blood red ruby. A lot of the dresses she wears were based on lingerie fabrics, and some of them were like crumpled sheets, so we were bringing sex as a constant thing within her.”

For Keira, portraying such an intricate character wasn’t the hardest part of making Anna Karenina. A large part of the movie consists of an extravagant dance that she performs with Aaron Taylor-Johnson when she first meets him. She sheepishly admits with a grin that getting the choreography right for this part was as difficult as it looks. “Really, really, really difficult!” she laughs. “Luckily, I had a lovely partner. I think I’m quite quick at picking things like that up but I found this almost impossible. But Aaron picked it up in about five seconds and just showed everyone up.”

More laughter comes when we point out that Anna Karenina is yet another role in which Keira plays a heroine whose life is sadly cut short by the time the final credits begin. For a woman who is planning on getting married next year, this is more than a little worrying. Is she secretly trying to tell us something? “I know – it’s seriously awful! I’ve died in pretty much every film I’ve done in the last five years,” she admits with a guilty look on her face. “I remember I got to the end of Anna Karenina and told myself that I needed to go out and make something incredibly positive and happy for a change. So I went over to New York in the summer and did a very happy film where I play a singer which is about friendship and making an album. I needed to put something positive about there… I needed to get some of the balance back!”

A happy Keira Knightley film? Now there’s a proposition. Keep an eye out for Can a Song Save Your Life next year, meanwhile Joe Wright’s epic Anna Karenina is in cinemas soon (December).


Drama, GB/France 2012 - Directed by Joe Wright
Written by Tom Stoppard based upon the novel by Leo Tolstoy
Cinematography Seamus McGarvey Music by Dario Marianelli
Starring Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Emily Watson, Matthew Macfadyen, Olivia Williams, Kelly Macdonald
Distributed by Universal Pictures