Tolstoy as re-imagined by Joe Wright and Tom Stoppard came to the Toronto International Film Festival in a big way Friday night as Focus Features’ adaptation of Anna Karenina made its North American debut. “They gave us a nice little standing ovation,” said a modest Wright who told me at the Soho House after-party this film means so much to him that he doesn’t know how he is going to follow it. He had great success early in his directing career with Oscar nominees like Pride & Prejudice and Atonement (which both featured his Anna Karenina star Keira Knightley) but then detoured to different kinds of films like The Soloist and action flick Hanna. Now that he’s back in this literary space he can appreciate the success more, he says.
Wright came up with the concept of staging the story in a theatre and then moving it in and out of that setting. It’s a unique and risky idea but really pays off in the execution. As Focus Features chief James Schamus told me, “This film is ravishing to look at.” A couple of critics have been naysayers but Schamus isn’t concerned about them. He says most will get it. Schamus plans an aggressive platform release strategy after the November 16th opening and should be relatively wide by December. Focus hopes it will draw upscale audiences who flock to this sort of thing but also younger women who may relate to the plight of Anna and the young actors cast here. It premiered in England earlier in the week and opens there this weekend.
This Anna Karenina certainly is a lot different than the version MGM and Greta Garbo served up in the 1930s. Wright’s bold concept of losing some of the naturalism and putting it in a theatrical setting wasn’t in Stoppard’s script – and he had to convince the writer it was the way to go. But in the end it all worked out. He said the premiere at Toronto’s classic Elgin theatre was almost surreal since it looked like the theatre-in-the-film-in-a-theatre. It’s an instant contender for a Best Picture, Director and Screenplay slot. Knightley’s go-for-broke work is likely to land her in the Best Actress race again, and producers also hope Jude Law as her husband gets attention in the supporting category. Pic also can easily expect Oscar nominations in numerous categories including the cinematography of Seamus McGarvey, production design of Sarah Greenwood, costume design of Jacqueline Durran, and musical score of Dario Marianelli (who is already an Oscar winner for Atonement).
Bevan and partner Eric Fellner have also produced another 2012 Holiday biggie, Les Miserables, for Focus’ parent company Universal. “The fact that they sang all the songs live [instead of pre-recording] is not only unprecendented, it makes a big difference,” Bevan says. They just showed it to the studio to great results, and Bevan says every actor from Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe on down deliver as do Cameron Mackintosh who was heavily involved in the production and a great asset to director Tom Hooper who is following up his Oscar winning work in The King’s Speech.