MINNEAPOLIS — For Keira Knightley, playing Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina was the mirror image of playing Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet.
The heroine of her 2005 film Pride and Prejudice is beloved by generations of readers. This time, she had to walk an emotional tightrope in Tolstoy’s drama of infidelity, vengeance, and retribution, making her adulterous character spirited, energetic, relatable, yet not too likable. Knightley feared that if she made Anna an innocent victim, “you’re going to lose the audience, and if you lose the audience they are just going to go, ‘Oh, shut up and jump under a train!’”
“There are moments when Tolstoy hates her,” she said. “I first read the book in my late teens and remembered it as this sweeping romance. Then I went back to it last summer and thought, ‘This is a very different thing than I remembered.’ Sometimes she is the anti-heroine. He’s almost holding her up and saying, ‘This is the Whore of Babylon.’ He’s not going, ‘You should go off for this romantic love.’ Then sometimes you feel he completely understands her and he’s absolutely in love with her.”
Director Joe Wright wanted all those contradictions, Knightley said. “That’s the dichotomy of Anna that has made her such a fascination for so many years,” she said.
When half the financing dropped away, Wright’s conception of the film changed. What was envisioned as a naturalistic production shot in Russia became a stylized version shot mostly on a soundstage. The shift is well-suited to a story of a society where false and artificial values were paramount.
Wright’s staging provides an ingenious background for Knightley’s tortured passions, with Jude Law superb as her fussy, cold husband, Alexi, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s romantic Vronsky the most dashing fellow since Errol Flynn swung from his last chandelier.
Although she’s no stranger to costume drama, Knightley never had a wardrobe to match Anna’s. As a socialite in 19th-century St. Petersburg, Anna dresses in the height of fashion, luxury and vanity.
Costume designer Jacqueline Durran, who also costumed Knightley in period style for Wright’s Pride and Prejudice and Atonement, visited Chanel in Paris to borrow yards upon yards of pearls and bushels of diamonds. Each day, Knightley would choose what kind of jewels she wanted from a treasure chest worth about $2 million.
Her wardrobe helps tell the story, too.
“The themes of Anna that we liked and that made a lot of sense to me was this idea that she’s a bird that’s stuck in a cage,” Knightley said. “Her hoop skirt frame is the cage; the veils are these beautiful cages. The idea is that it’s claustrophobic, she’s caught, so she’s constantly surrounded by death in the furs.
“She’s got these birds that can’t fly stuck to her head. The diamonds are very harsh kind of stones. The only time that we ever brought a color into the jewelry was when we had a ruby that is blood red.”
While she admitted some misgivings about the film’s shift in style, Knightley said she never doubted Wright’s “complete obsession” with making an Anna Karenina that stands apart.
“I’m incredibly proud of it. If you think of cinema as an event, it certainly is an event. You’ll only ever see naturalism on film at the moment and whether you think it’s overstylized or not, you just have to celebrate the fact that it’s just so completely different,” she said.