If you've ever read Anna Karenina, you know that reducing Leo Tolstoy's classic tragedy to an effective and emotional two-hour film is a daunting task. Sure, the plot sounds simple enough: The story follows a Russian aristocrat, Anna, who engages in a life-altering affair with a well-to-do cavalry officer, Count Vronsky, at the expense of her pristine reputation and marriage with the respectable statesman Count Karenin. But the novel goes on for a dense 800 pages. 

However, director Joe Wright and his leading lady Keira Knightley, who plays the titular anti-heroine of the film, in theaters everywhere today, marvelously arose to the challenge. With a flourishing script from screenwriter Tom Stoppard, Wright and Knightley (along with her co-stars Jude Law and Aaron Johnson) managed to capture the essence and intensity of "the pinnacle of realist fiction" and produce the best cinematic adaptation of the novel yet.

Complex got a chance to sit down with the director and his muse (Wright's worked with Knightley on Pride and Prejudice and Atonement) to discuss the film's peculiar and breathtaking cinematography, the importance of incorporating the novel's most minute details, and how the two of them empathized with such an unlikeable character as Anna Karenina.

As told to Tara Aquino (@t_akino)

On setting the film on a stage:

Joe Wright: Russian culture at the time wasn’t really Russian. They were trying to be something other than Russian, they wanted to be French. They all spoke French, they read etiquette books on how to behave like French people, and they dressed in Paris fashions. And that was really why I chose to set the film in the theater, once I decided to divest myself of the trappings of realism.

The choice to shoot it in a theatre was about this idea that they were living their lives as if upon a stage. What I found interesting about Russian society at the time was the kind of identity crisis that they were going through socially, and also Anna seems to be going through an identity crisis. The role that she has adopted no longer suits her; she has this violent passion that needs to break out.

Keira Knightley: I think that’s what being socialized is, it's living your life on a stage. I think we perform all the time. I’m performing the role of an actress, you’re performing the role of a journalist. When we go home, we’ll perform a different role—we’ll be a husband, a wife, a girlfriend, boyfriend, we’ll be a friend. I think we do that 90% of the time.


On relating to the character of Anna Karenina:

Knightley: There wasn’t anything about her that was that far away. I think we live in a society with rules. If you break those rules, then the pack turns against you. It doesn’t matter where you live, or when you live, you understand what’s going on for Anna, and what happens to her, and that feeling of being ostracized, and that feeling of being trapped by rules that don’t necessarily fit. The idea that she gets destroyed almost by being the most honest person in the whole film, and it’s that honesty, that lack of inability to live within a lie, that is the thing that leads to her destruction is interesting. I think that’s probably still the same nowadays in a way.

[To prep for the role], first of all, my book is about twice the size that it should be. It has a lot of colored Post-Its. I’m a big fan of a very large supply of different colored Post-Its. The different colors will be different characters, different events, different ideas, or different charting. For example, the violence within her character would be one color. The relationships with different characters would be another color. I do sometimes run out of colors. [Laughs.]


On condensing an 800-page novel into a screenplay:

Knightley: I think just the fact that Tom Stoppard managed to get a book that’s—I mean my version is 820 pages, probably in different translations it’s slightly different—down to a screenplay of 115 pages without feeling like it missed the essence of the book, and the essence of each character, was an amazing feat.

You can see how you do an adaptation for television. If you’re given two two-hour slots, [the story] fits very nicely. Trying to get a book of that size, with that many ideas, into a two-hour film is something that all of us were kind of going, "Whew, fuck, what are we going to lose?" because you’re going to lose something.

 

I think that’s what being socialized is, it's living your life on a stage. I think we perform all the time. I’m performing the role of an actress, you’re performing the role of a journalist. When we go home, we’ll perform a different role.—Keira Knightley

 

Wright: Tom Stoppard has been a hero of mine for quite some time and I was really only interested in making Anna Karenina if he were to write it. That was the point of it really, to work with him. So I approached him and was terrified in that initial approach because I had never met him before. But I discovered him to be one of those extraordinary brilliant people who, when you meet them, instead of their brilliance making you feel small and tiny in there presence, he kind of elevates you and you feel bigger when you are around him. And it was as if he were able to, humbly, tell a story down from his plinth. It was like [he and Tolstoy] sat across the table from each other and discussed the novel. It was a kind of amazing thing to watch, and I think very few writers would have had that assurance.

We talked for about three months about how this adaptation might work before he accepted the commission. Then once he had a clear idea, he wrote out scenes. He must have read the book about four or five times in that period. Once he worked out how to do it, he said yes. And he went away to a country cottage and spent six weeks writing. After six weeks, he delivered the first draft, and pretty much 85% of the film was in that first draft. It was as close to perfect as any script I have ever read.

 

On the symbolism of the costume design:

Knightley: First of all, a massive part of Anna is vanity, and it’s written about for pages and pages and pages in the book. You kind of go, "OK, well that’s quite an interesting part of the character." As everything in the book—and we didn’t necessarily chart it like this—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 onto. In that, we got some really good costumes.

I think the reason that I love working with Jacqueline Durran—who did Pride and Prejudice and Atonement as well—is that she really works from a character base, and everything is full of symbolism. We saw Anna as a bird trapped in a cage—her veils as cages, her corsets as cage, you literally see the cage underneath the dress. We had the fur surrounded by death. She’s being fluttered by the birds, dead birds in her hair that can’t get away, the kind of cut glass of a diamond being the hardest stone that could cut a throat at any second.

We wanted sex to be a big part of that as well, so a lot of the dresses were based on a kind of lingerie idea, that they’re slightly falling off, or 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. 

The last dress that she’s seen in, I got obsessed by the idea of the fall of the Whore of Babylon. Finding that final color for that dress in the last sequence was based on a couple of paintings we found of the fall of the Whore of Babylon.

 

On staying true to the original themes of the novel:

Knightley: As soon as Joe decided to bring in the Levin-Kitty story more than is normally brought in adaptations, you suddenly go, "If you’re playing Anna as the heroine, then you have two stories that are doing the same thing." One ends up well, and the other one doesn’t, but they’re doing the same thing.

I don’t think that’s the point of the book. I think, one, Levin is the point of the book. Levin is hope. Levin is spirituality and that kind of love, while Anna is not. Anna is the destructive love, the love that is painful and madness. I think as soon as you decide you’re bringing that other story in, you suddenly have scope for a very different take on Anna, a take that, I think, is more in the book. I actually had a couple people come up and go, "You didn’t make her horrible enough."

Wright: To me, there is no Anna Karenina without Levin, he is kind of the point of it. You need him to balance her story. I can understand why, if you're trying to get that book into a film, you’d say the easy cut to make is Levin. But the problem with that for Tom and I was that if you cut Levin, then Anna becomes an incredibly bleak story. She is not a heroine, she is cruel and violent. Also, she is the opposite of hypocritical and has a belief in love and has this kind of fire in her belly.

Like Tolstoy, I think I have a highly ambivalent reaction to her. I love her as Tolstoy fell in love with her but also she is, in Tolstoy’s eyes, culpable. If you don’t have Levin, then all you have is an anti-heroine because it is a book about being human and it is a book about how we can strive towards our humanness through our experience of love.