Diane Haithman is an AwardsLine contributor.
The British are famous for understatement, and to call early reviews for English director Joe Wright’s new take on Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina “mixed” is indeed an understatement.
The movie, produced by London-based Working Title Productions (Atonement, Pride & Prejudice) and distributed domestically by Focus Features, arrived for its world premiere at September’s Toronto International Film Festival with an impressive awards-season pedigree. Anna Karenina reunites Wright with Keira Knightley, who also starred in Atonement and netted an Oscar nomination for Pride & Prejudice. Jude Law portrays Anna’s cuckolded husband Karenin, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson is Count Vronsky. (Working Title also produced the upcoming Christmas movie musical Les Misérables, for Focus parent company Universal).
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Anna Karenina has the added cachet of a script adapted by venerable British playwright Sir Tom Stoppard (Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, the Oscar-winning screenplay for Shakespeare in Love), who Wright says wrote the Anna script in longhand.
In Toronto, Anna Karenina had Cleveland Plain Dealer film critic Clint O’Connor turning somersaults, calling the film “a stunning production, something akin to a grand dance.” But The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis attacked the film as “a travesty with a miscast Keira Knightley that is tragic only in its conceptions and execution.” The Chicago Tribune’s Michael Phillips split his own review down the middle: “Anna Karenina only half-works; Wright forces the comedy more subtly managed by Stoppard (who is, after all, one of the wittiest men alive). But it’s trying something.”
And “trying something” seems to be the goal, say three key members of the team behind this $31-million effort: Wright, Knightley, and producer Tim Bevan of Working Title.
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“If a piece of work is universally hated, it hasn’t worked; it’s equally true that, if it’s universally loved, it also hasn’t worked,” Wright explains. “What you want is some debate, to create a conversation, and that seems to be happening. In a way, I think culture is a conversation between artists and the public, and also writers and journalists, so I’m very excited.”
Knightley agrees that sparking discussion and taking risks were their goals. “We definitely went into this with everybody saying, ‘OK, let’s hold hands and jump.’ We didn’t want to do something that felt easy,” she explains. “We all wanted to push ourselves.”
The creative team also includes frequent Working Title collaborators Seamus McGarvey (director of photography), production designer Sarah Greenwood, and costume designer Jacqueline Durran.
For his part, Bevan offers this quirky comparison: To the critics, Anna Karenina is Marmite, a yeast spread that Brits love on toast, but many Americans find singularly appalling. “People either hate it or love it,” Bevan says. “I think with any form of cinema, particularly these more artistic films, you need to take risks.”
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Much of the Marmite factor of Anna seems to stem from the film’s stylized approach: Scenes dealing with the suffocating artifice of the Russian aristocracy are, for the most part, performed on a theater stage. The scenes about landowner Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), infatuated with the aristocratic Kitty (Alicia Vikander), play out in a naturalistic, earthbound setting. Wright says this decision was made after Stoppard had completed his script.
Getting Stoppard to write the script was crucial for Wright, who sat down in Bevan’s office two years ago to discuss what literary adaptation might complete the trilogy begun with 2005’s Pride & Prejudice and 2007’s Atonement. “I said, Anna Karenina, and Tim thought it was a good idea, but I backtracked a little bit and said, ‘Only if Tom Stoppard writes it.’ It’s a huge undertaking, and to me, Tom was the only writer really capable of doing the book justice,” Wright recalls.
Once Stoppard was on board, the writer and the director agreed that, unlike some previous film versions of Anna Karenina, they would not eliminate the Levin-Kitty romance. “In terms of getting (a 900-page novel) to 120 pages of script, he said basically that anything that didn’t speak to various forms of love, he was going to lop out,” Bevan explains.
But both Bevan and Wright admit the choice to use a real stage within the context of the drama was as much about money as love. “The truth of it is, these (artistic) films can’t take huge budgets, they don’t do blockbuster business,” Bevan says. “We’re in an arena where very few people go, the $20 million to $30 million budget. That can be a very dangerous place to be. You are in the middle, but you have to make it look bigger, cost-wise. You have to give it an epic feel.”
A naturalistic approach would have called for too many locations, requiring expensive travel and hotel accommodations. Plus, Wright says, many potential locations in Moscow and St. Petersburg had been renovated to the point that they “had lost some of their magic.”
Then, too, some potential locations were overused. “When we found a location that we liked, we’d hear something like: ‘Yes, we’ve shot seven Anna Kareninas here before,’ which is really kind of depressing,” Wright says. “We were also looking for locations in the UK, and a similar kind of refrain was heard. The guardians would say, ‘Yes, we’ve shot three movies with Keira Knightley here before.’ ”
Hence, Anna’s world was devised as a stage, to the point of having some scenes choreographed like dance pieces. Wright says Stoppard’s script has remained virtually the same despite the change. And Bevan believes the unorthodox approach provides the raison d être for revisiting Tolstoy’s work yet again on film. The most recent version, a 1997 effort directed by Bernard Rose, starred Sophie Marceau and Sean Bean, and movie grande dames including Greta Garbo and Vivien Leigh have portrayed Anna over the years.
With or without the critics — or Marmite—the movie seems to be hovering on the Academy radar, and both the producer and the director say the recognition can make all the difference to a film like Anna Karenina.
“It’s a very difficult subject for me because I find if one focuses too much, or even at all, on the competitive nature of our business, the art suffers,” says Wright, who was nominated for a BAFTA Award and a Golden Globe for Atonement but has yet to be nominated by the Academy for his directing. “I find it to be quite unhealthy, personally.
“Having said that, I think nominations mean a great deal,” the director continues. “There’s kind of a club, I suppose, and it’s an entrance to that club. There’s a validation from your fellow craftspeople and artists, and I think that’s a really lovely thing. That’s talking from a director’s point of view — the whole awards thing has a very, very different meaning to producers and to box office.”
Bevan calls the Academy Awards “the kings and queens, the extreme royalty of the awards season. Because of the web, the Academy Awards are acknowledged as being the benchmark.”
But there’s a downside to the Internet, Bevan adds. “Everybody thought it was piracy that would kill us, but actually I think it’s the speed of comment, because if your film is not up to it, people will know fast. There’s that instant judgment, which is fantastically liberating in one way, and frightening in another.”