Keira Knightley stars as Anna Karenina in Joe Wright’s adaptation of the 19th-Century Tolstoy novel about a Russian aristocrat who abandons her adoring son and status in society for an obsessive and destructive affair with a cavalry officer (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Any movie that is inspired by a literary classic is a hard sell, but especially this one, which takes the conceit of “all life’s a stage” literally and has the action performed entirely within a decaying theater, while the actors move as though in a stylized dance. But it would be a mistake to overlook this gem of a film, which puts Knightley very much into the Oscar chatter, as it does her co-star, Jude Law (supporting), who plays her dull but sympathetic husband and is almost unrecognizable with an unflattering receding hairline.
The actress was in New York recently at a junket at the Waldorf Hotel where she talked about making the film, playing an anti-heroine and being cinched into period costumes again. Knightley looked drop-dead gorgeous and prim and proper in her elegant Chanel dress, but she’s very down to earth and threw around an occasional expletive, especially when she talked about her first reaction to what Wright told her he had in mind when it came to staging the film. But after a moment’s hesitation she went, “Okay then,” and gave herself over totally to Wright’s unconventional interpretation of the classic. She has “total trust” in Wright, who directed her in an Academy Award-nominated performance in “Pride and Prejudice” (2005) and a year later in an acclaimed performance in “Atonement.” Also, another enticement was the fabulous script by Tom Stoppard, “The Shakespeare in Love” screenwriter.
Below are highlights of the recent interview with Knightley:
Did you reread the novel and did it touch your heart?
Yes. I read it first when I was about 19, and I remember loving it. I remember seeing her entirely as being innocent and everyone else being wrong and then when I read it again before we started shooting last summer, I went this is different than I remember it being. And this is a much darker character than I remember and then suddenly the question of her function within the piece. Because it’s called ‘Anna Karenina’ a lot of people go we have to sympathize with her all the time. And I don’t know that that’s always the function of her within the novel. I don’t think Tolstoy was always necessarily holding her up going, ‘This is the person you’d all want to be.’ I think quite a lot of the time he’s holding her up as a warning, and I thought that was incredibly interesting, particularly as I knew Joe wanted to do, he wanted to put the Kitty-Levin (Alicia Vikander and Domhnall Gleason) storyline as in most films they cut it out. That’s the hopeful story line. That’s the romantic, kind of wonderful story line. Anna’s storyline is destructive. Because of the Kitty-Levin storyline we felt we could take Anna to a darker place.
Isn’t it important for an actress to be on the side of the character she’s playing?
I’m always on the side of the character. Absolutely…I think that you have to understand, you always have to understand the character, why they do what they do, which is the exciting part of my job and the bit of my job that I totally love. But I don’t think you always have to like them. I don’t think you always have to agree with them. And I didn’t always like her. I think I loved her all the time .but I didn’t always like her.
Because so much of the action takes place on the stage and the actors are performing for other people’s benefit, is there a time in your life when you feel like you’re on stage performing for others?
I think that’s what being socialized is. I think we all perform all of the time. I mean I’m performing the role of an actress, you’re performing the role of a journalist, and when we go home we’ll perform a different role. We will be a husband, a wife, a girlfriend, boyfriend, we’ll be a friend. I mean yeah, I think we do that 90 percent of the time.
Could you talk a little bit about the costumes that Anna wears in the film.
First of all a massive part of her character is vanity, and it’s written about for pages, and pages, and pages in the book. Leo Tolstoy goes on about it a lot, so you kind of go, “Okay well that’s quite interesting part of the character.” We didn’t necessarily talk about this but in the book as everything starts crumbling around her she takes more and more stock of her appearance and that becomes a greater and greater kind of thing that she’s holding on to.
But I think the reason I love working with Jacqueline (Durran), who did “Pride and Prejudice” as well, is that she really works from a character base and everything is full of symbolism. And so we saw as like a bird trapped in a cage. So the idea of veils as cages, you literally see the cage underneath the dress, the corset as a cage. We had the fur surrounded by death. She’s being throttled by the birds, dead birds in their hair that can’t get away, the kind of cut glass of a diamond being the hardest stone that could cut her throat at any second.
We wanted sex to be a part of that as well, so that a lot of the dresses were based on a kind of lingerie idea that they’re slightly falling off, or that there’s lace poking out. We actually used bed linen fabric in one of the dresses to keep that kind of post coital vibe in it. And then the last dress that she’s seen in, I got obsessed by the idea of the Whore of Babylon, and the fall of the Whore of Babylon, so finding that final color (red) for that dress in that last sequence was based on a couple of paintings that we found of the fall of the Whore of Babylon.
What are you doing next?
I got to the end of 'Anna Karenina' and realized that I’d done five years of films where either I died or something horrific had happened in all of them. I wanted to spend a year not dying and trying to do things that were very positive. So, the first one that I made is a film called “Can a Song Save Your Life?” which is an incredibly positive, hopeful piece about friendship and making an album and possibilities. The next one was a piece of absolute pure entertainment (“Jack Ryan”), which is a Hollywood thriller.