When Keira Knightley took on the starring role of Anna Karenina, she told journalists at a junket at the Waldorf Hotel recently that she knew the movie would be a hard sell.
Tolstoy’s 19th Century novel about the doomed Russian aristocrat who abandons her adoring son and place in society for an affair with the handsome, spoiled Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), has already had numerous television and movie incarnations — not to mention ballets and operas — with Anna most famously immortalized onscreen by Greta Garbo (1935) and Vivien Leigh (1948).
When director Joe Wright told Knightley what he had in mind — that it would be staged within the confines of a decaying theater with actors moving as though they were in a sort of stylized ballet — the refined actress, dressed all in Chanel, said her first reaction was, “Oh [expletive]!” dropping the F-bomb word.
And then she went, “Okay then.” Even as she worried that traditionalists might not go for this radical take, she was completely confident in the director.
“There is an amazing amount of trust,” Knightley explained. After all, Wright directed the actress in her Academy Award-nominated performance in Pride and Prejudice (2005) and a year later in an acclaimed performance in Atonement.
Also on the plus side is the terrific script by Tom Stoppard, Oscar winner for Shakespeare in Love, whose dialogue is lean and sharp and includes memorable lines like, “I would forgive her if she broke the law, but she broke the rules.”
Knightley, 27, first read the book when she was 19 and remembers thinking of Anna as a victim, “almost saintly and wronged by everyone.” But when she reread it before filming, “I saw her as much darker. You expect her to be the one that you should always sympathize with, but I thought it would be more interesting if we looked at that kind of darker, more morally ambiguous side of her.”
Anna’s story still fascinates, Knightley remarked, because she is someone people can relate to, which led to the obvious question of how the actress identified with her.
“I’m not quite sure,” she replied. “I mean, I find her terrifying because I am no better than she is. I find her terrifying because even in the moments when I judged her the harshest, I thought, ‘Would I do any differently? Have I behaved any better?’”
The story still resonates today, Knightley said, because “it’s about love and not just romance or just that happy bit, not love in the way it’s all sold to us, but love as the thing that we’ve been fascinated and obsessed by for centuries.”
She added, “Love is that thing that we are all after, and yet, it can destroy us and it’s painful and can be madness and can be joy and can be happiness. It looks at the whole thing.”
Jude Law, who plays her loyal and dull husband, is almost unrecognizable with an unflattering receding hairline. Knightley said she made fun of him and asked him why he couldn’t just wear a wig.
In a performance that’s getting supporting actor Oscar buzz, Law has given the usually unsympathetic and cold character nuance and depth. This is the first time Knightley has worked with him.
“I’ve known Jude socially for quite a few years. I’m a big fan of his because he’s a character actor. I mean he’s a damn good-looking man, and he’s very good at those leading roles, but he is essentially a character actor.”
Her obsessive love interest, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Savages), “literally works the opposite to the way I do,” Knightley remarked. “With Jude and me, we’d sit around a table and we’d have notes and we read the book and we’d be discussing for hours and all the rest of it. Aaron doesn’t like to do any of that. Every bit of the emotion, he can’t necessarily describe it, but he can do movement-based improvisation. So, we’d do 20 minute improvisations with no words whatsoever that were entirely movement,” she mused. “He is completely comfortable within that realm. I’ve never seen anything like it actually.”
Knightley’s costumes, gorgeous gowns designed by Jacqueline Durran, who created the memorable outfits in Atonement and Pride and Prejudice, are fascinating because the skirts are shaped as though they were designed in the 19th Century, but the bodices have contemporary asymmetrical necklines. The period costumes, including the elaborate hair and makeup, have a very real downside.
“You’re adding three or four hours to a 12-hour working day, and that’s just to make it, not to take it off. So in costume dramas, you’re looking at two hours on top of a 12, 14-hour shooting day. That’s a bitch. I mean, that’s really why I tend to do one and then go off,” said the actress.
“A modern day piece, you come in half an hour before, you chuck something on, it’s lovely. This one was exhausting. The whole makeup and costume department were wrecked at the end of this, partly because a lot of the costumes were still being made right the way through the film. Some of them were literally being sewn together still on me.”
Besides being a massive part of the character, the clothes, hair and makeup also symbolize mood and situation. Near the end of the movie, Anna has become a pariah in St. Petersburg society, and she’s confined to her living quarters. She is wearing an undergarment that resembles a birdcage, which the actress said meant Anna had become like a caged bird.
“There were dead birds in the hair that couldn’t fly, diamonds that could cut your throat at any second because they’re the hardest stone,” and “a lot of the dresses were based on lingerie ideas, so you were bringing sex and death constantly. There were some dresses that were made of bed fabrics.”
At the end of the film, Anna is wearing a red dress, “a very specific color that we got from paintings of the fall of the whore of Babylon.”
When asked if there was anything of her costume she wanted to keep, she laughed saying only the diamonds, loaners from Chanel worth about two million dollars.
Her next two movies fast-forward to the 21st Century. “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,” she said.
The first film she made since Anna Karenina is Can a Song Save Your Life?, a movie co-starring Mark Ruffalo that is an “incredibly positive, hopeful piece about friendship and making an album and possibilities.”
After that she’s doing a Hollywood thriller directed by Kenneth Branagh, that she described as “absolute pure entertainment.”
Anna Karenina premiered Nov. 16, 2012 in select theaters. It’s rated R for some sexuality and violence.
Premiere Photos: Marion Curtis/Starpix/Courtesy of Purity Vodka