Heroine Bleak: Q&A with 'Anna Karenina' Director, Joe Wright

Joe Wright, Director of ‘Anna Karenina’/Photo © Laurie Sparham/Focus Features
Joe Wright, Director of ‘Anna Karenina’/Photo © Laurie Sparham/Focus Features

Bringing a classic work of literature to the big screen is always a perilous undertaking, where the degree of difficulty directly correlates to the size of a book’s stature among the other lofty peaks of literary accomplishment. With Anna Karenina, British filmmaker Joe Wright set out to scale Russian literature’s Everest – or K2, depending on your perspective on Dostoevsky vs. Tolstoy or Anna vs. War and Peace. Wright, best known for his visually and emotionally lush adaptations of "Pride and Prejudice" and "Atonement," was undaunted by the risks involved in scaling Tolstoy’s masterpiece of domestic unrest.

And like many grand romantic gestures, Wright made his decision to mount a production based on a book that had previously been adapted for screens of various sizes at least fifty times while under the influence – of love, that is. Wright had recently married sitar player Anoushka Shankar (daughter of Ravi) when he reread Tolstoy’s 976-page tragedy about the intertwining stories of a Anna, a philandering doyenne of St. Petersberg society, and Levin, a simple and sincere land owner unwavering in his affections for an innocent beauty. However, unlike most of the novel's cinematic suitors, Wright was not seduced by the novel’s title character: He did not see her as a romantic heroine or victim of her censorious times. Instead, Wright was so taken by the novel’s stark contrasts between romantic idealism and fatalism, artifice and authenticity as embodied by its two principal characters, he boldly chose to combine them all in one audacious film that melds the intimacy of the theater with the naturalism of film.

In a recent interview with Signature, Wright laid bare his views on the novel, its tormented title character, and love itself. Read on to learn more.

Signature: What theme or idea in the book spoke to you and compelled you to make this film right now?

Joe Wright: It was Levin’s line, when he  says at the dinner party that sex and love are given to us to find the one person with whom we can fulfill our humanness. I think what spoke to me the loudest was this idea that through love, through our relationship, we are attempting to attain something divine. And that spoke to me at the point I’m at in my own life.

SIG: But that kind of idealism takes a back seat, narratively speaking, to the bleak outcome of Anna’s grand romantic gesture. That didn’t deter you?

JW: I think that Anna, in contrast to Levin, is something of an anti-heroine almost. She is incredibly human but what she’s left with is a spiritual bankruptcy that drives her to the point of her final conclusion.

SIG: In reading the book, she seems so soulful and quite the opposite of bankrupt. She just seems flawed and human.

JW: I guess maybe bankruptcy is the wrong word because it sounds like giving up. But there’s something lacking. There’s something that hides the love that she so desperately wants. Like in that final sequence in the book – and this is something Keira picked up on as well, this idea that suicide is a shy person’s form of homicide -- she’s incredibly angry about what she does. She doesn’t just kind of give up. She doesn’t say, ‘Oh what the heck, life isn’t worth living anymore.’ It’s a very violent gesture she makes in her conclusion.

SIG: But really, she’s just a person looking for love in all the wrong places.

JW: Exactly. That’s the tragic paradox of her story. They all want love. They’re all looking for the same thing. They’re just looking for it in different places. Her brother Oblonsky looks for it in very different places. In fact, he looks for it all over town. Levin has chosen a different path. Karenin is also looking for it. Everyone is looking for it.

SIG: Anna had a husband who was very devoted to her. It’s hard to really pinpoint the source of her vast emptiness that would cause her to stray. Were you concerned that highlighting that in casting Jude Law as her dull husband would make your protagonist irredeemable?

JW: I believe he loves her. She had a problem really processing and accepting that love. To love someone is one challenge. But to accept another’s love is possibly even a greater challenge.

SIG: Because that requires no small amount of self-love. By making Karenin such a sympathetic character, it seems like you consciously decided not to turn Anna into a romantic heroine as she was portrayed in previous films.

JW: It turned out to not be a decision at all. That was the portrait Tolstoy was painting. From what I understand Tolsoy set out to write a story about a woman he believed culpable and this cuckolded husband he believed to be righteous. But as he wrote the book, the characters rose up off the page and he began to fall in love with Anna. And it’s that highly ambivalent relationship Tolstoy had with these characters that makes the story so enduring and so endlessly compelling.

SIG: So are you saying that turning Anna into a romantic heroine is a Hollywood fabrication?

JW: Yes. And that’s why you have to have Levin featured prominently if you’re going to take that path with Anna and Karenin. Levin counterpoints that situation. If that’s the kind of conclusion you’re going to draw, then what on earth do you cut to once the train has past? You have to have Levin.

The technical genius of the book and of Stoppard’s script is that they kind of work in opposite directions. They start at the same point, Anna climbs and climbs to the consummation of her relationship just as Levin descends into the pit of despair and then as he reaches his bottom and she reaches the top they change directions and cross over so as he begins to ascend she descends. And so they’re constantly balancing each other. And I think Tom did that in a way that almost seems invisible. But that’s his brilliance.

SIG: Was it always important to you that Levin remained a big part of the story even though it would have been an easy place to cut?

JW: Absolutely. The title can be very misleading. It could equally be called "Levin." Or it could be called "A Russian Family Domestic Story Set in the 1870s." It’s not such an exciting title but more representative of what the film is about. It’s about love in all its many forms.

SIG: Did you view her story more as a lust story than a love story?

JW: No, I wouldn’t say that. I’m not sure I could call it a lust story really. I think what happens in that blossoming of first passion in relationships -- you can’t do anything but make love. You want to devour them. But as the relationship develops that kind of heat subsides and you grow into something else. But for Anna, who had never had that kind of passion – I don’t think she’d ever had an orgasm in her life – I think to reach that point at age twenty-eight, she mistakes that for true love and she wants to hold into it. And that makes her needy and greedy and obsessive. And so that for me is what eventually brings about her downfall.

SIG: I feel like we’re all susceptible to making Anna’s mistakes. But it’s hard to imagine a character being as evolved as Levin.

JW: When I read about Tolstoy, I imagine he was as evolved as Levin. He was deeply flawed in some respects. But for a man of eighty to start learning Chinese, there are certain people who come along who are kind of prophets. I don’t mean they see into the future, but they have a clearer view of the world. They perhaps see the world a little closer to how it really is. But I think Tolstoy was one of those people and Levin is an autobiographical portrait of Tolstoy. I’ve met a couple of people who I believe – one in particular – who I believe to be that evolved.

SIG: Can you say who that is?

JW: Yeah, he’s my father-in-law.

SIG: How did living with this story and these characters impact you on a moral and spiritual level?

JW: I’d like to think it rubbed off a little bit. But I wouldn’t be so presumptuous to say so. I think it’s good for us to think about these things. I think it’s good for us to think about positive philosophical or emotional stories.

SIG: To be reminded of your own ideals.

JW: Exactly. And to keep those ideals in your sights. I am so not perfect and so not evolved like Levin is but occasionally I can be kind and forgiving and loving and understanding and all those things one aspires to be. And with characters like Levin and books like Anna Karenina and ideally films like Anna Karenina remind us and keep our thoughts on the mountaintop.