After taking a major left-turn with last year’s pop-art action fairy tale “Hanna,” some were a little disappointed to see that Joe Wright was seemingly going back to his wheel house, returning to Working Title Films for another period literary adaptation starring Keira Knightley, in the tradition of first and second films, “Pride & Prejudice” and “Atonement.” While his take on Leo Tolstoy‘s classic “Anna Karenina” has an incredibly prestigious team and cast — a script from Tom Stoppard and a roster, including Jude Law, Aaron Johnson, Matthew Macfayden, Ruth Wilson, Olivia Williams and Domnhall Gleeson — it was hard to see it as anything other than lush, pretty costume drama Oscar bait.
As it turns out, Wright’s planning something very, very different. The latest print edition of Empire Magazine is on the streets, and it’s a typically ace, jam-packed issue, featuring, among other things, a feature on Wright’s film. Within that piece it reveals that rather than the tired period drama that some were expecting, Wright’s film is an experimental, expressionistic take on the tale.
It wasn’t always meant to be so. Three weeks before the film went into production, “Anna Karenina” was set to be a relatively standard shoot, full of lush scenery and stately homes. But Wright, looking for “how to achieve something that really expresses the essence of the story,” worrying that he was repeating himself and bucking against budgetary restrictions that meant the film would only be able to shoot in Russia for four weeks (with the rest taking place in the U.K.), rethought his old plan. As a result of his reading of Orlando Figes‘ 2002 history of the Russian aristocracy “Natasha’s Dance” — that Wright says “described them as living their lives upon a stage, that it was all a performance” — the director decided to shoot the majority of his Russian epic on and around a single location, a run-down theater built from scratch at Shepperton Studios outside London.
Inspired by his idea that the book is “about the search for the authentic life,” the film will see the world of Anna, her husband Karenin and her lover Count Vronsky intrude on this theatrical setting, with full-size trains running through one moment and the “stage” converted into an ice rink the next. Other rooms will connect directly to the theater, while toy trains and dollhouses will represent exterior locations. As Wright says, “There is a fluid linearity. You can walk from one house under the ‘stage’ straight onto the horse training ground.” Producer Paul Webster (“Eastern Promises“) adds, “We are creating true cinema, this elastic universe. You can go through a door and you’ve even got a Russian landscape.”
Furthermore, don’t expect it to stick to period, with the piece hinting that anachronisms will appear as Anna’s sanity unravels. Seemingly, the only time that the camera will actually venture outside is with Levin, the character played by fast-rising star Domhnall Gleeson (“True Grit“), the only “authentic” character among a host of posers who is able to go out into the “real” world, thanks to some location shooting in Russia and the U.K.
Wright also promises to keep the visual fireworks of “Hanna” away — despite the bold conceit he says, “The stylisation is not an embellishment, but a subtraction. This is possibly my least indulgent film; everything is at the service of the story.” Empire (over)excitedly compares the approach to Lars von Trier‘s “Dogville,” Christopher Nolan‘s “Inception” and Powell & Pressburger, but we’ll have to wait and see for ourselves. Of the latter filmmakers, Wright acknowledges, “They are always going to be an inspiration,” but all told, the film has suddenly become far, far more of a fascinating prospect than it was before. Pick up the new issue of Empire (which features “The Avengers” on the cover) for the rest of the skinny on the film, and much more. “Anna Karenina” will hit U.K. theaters on September 7th, with a U.S. release to follow soon after.