After an extraordinary run of five acclaimed features—three of them with Keira Knightley, beginning with 2005’s Pride & Prejudice—Joe Wright knows where his bread is buttered. “I think only my wife can have that title of muse,” demurs the 41-year-old British director, on the phone from Washington, D.C., a hint of playfulness in his voice. “There’s so much that I do love about Keira,” Wright continues. “We’re similar like siblings. We sometimes disagree; usually I win. Sometimes she wins. Often we’ll do a take both ways and I see what works in the cutting room.”
Wright describes his frequent star (we’ll avoid the term muse) as brave, bold and an underdog. “She’s not needy of an audience’s love,” he insists. It’s a theory put to the test in Anna Karenina, the pair’s latest collaboration after 2007’s Atonement and the most thorough showcase for the actor’s willingness to go dark. Alive to Leo Tolstoy’s romantic ironies, this new screen version of the Russian classic benefits from a fully realized Anna, a far cry from Greta Garbo’s sad-eyed sufferer. “She isn’t a feminist heroine—she isn’t just a victim of a patriarchal society,” says Wright of the character. “What people have done in the past is make Anna this great martyr to love. For me, that isn’t the book that I read. The book I read is a portrait of a lady who was difficult, compromised, obsessive and, in the end, brought down by herself.”
For all of Wright’s attention to the story’s emotional fidelity, his Anna Karenina is also a wild departure, a colorful psychodrama brought to life in dizzying, theatrical form. Neurotic exchanges happen in front of a stage’s red curtains; toy trains become real ones; and dollhouses accommodate a slew of lifelike domestic dramas. In short, you won’t find racehorses falling offstage in Tolstoy’s text. “No, you won’t,” the director admits. “Realism somehow puts a wall up between me and the inner lives of the characters. Stylization is a subtraction of that surface.” Wright says his longtime crew is willing to back his most outlandish notions—or most of them. “My cinematographer has a clever technique where he just raises his voice about four octaves. If he goes, ‘Well…’ [Wright’s wail is audible only to dogs], then I know it’s a really shit idea and I don’t have to humiliate myself further.”
Unlike many of his peers, Wright has demonstrated a commitment to heavy-duty literature, a “catching-up” for someone who never went to college. “It’s all a part of my education,” explains Wright, before noting Tolstoy’s timeliness. “One can draw parallels with celebrity society, the pack turning on a person in an instant.” But his deeper connection to the novel is a bond he describes as spiritual, born of reaching middle age and having a child. “That’s what Tolstoy was grappling with too,” offers Wright. “He was roughly my age when he wrote the book. Love affords us the opportunity to reach our humanness.” (Of his famous extended tracking shots, the filmmaker cops to being a fan of Wim Wenders’s metaphysical Wings of Desire: “I like the angels’ point of view.”)
For now, though, Wright is in a position he’s been in before: the eve of a prestigious fall release and its attendant Oscar hoopla. “It’s really difficult,” he says of the awards-season horse race. “I find competition to be the antithesis of everything we’ve been talking about.” For a moment, Wright sounds uncertain; he tells me about a bad night after Hanna, reading negative reviews. “Of course those critics are right, because it matches your own self-loathing.” Suddenly, the man of faith returns. “Hope,” he says, when asked where his films come from. You can tell he’s ready to lay off the Russian writers for a while.
Anna Karenina opens Fri 16.
Follow Joshua Rothkopf on Twitter: @joshrothkopf