Friends and Family
Exploring Tolstoy’s Emotionally Rich And Culturally Complex Universe
Matthew MacFadyen stars as Oblonsky in director Joe Wright’s bold, theatrical new vision of the epic story of love, Anna Karenina, a Focus Features release.
For a story famously about “unhappy families,” Wright created a happy home for his family of actors to embody the story’s fascinating and rich characters and the culturally complex world they live in.
Film editor Melanie Ann Oliver states, “Joe Wright gives everyone the license and the confidence to go further, while through the performances he will keep the movie grounded.”
With such a bold visionary approach to Anna Karenina, the director needed his cast to fully embrace the theatre concept, as they would be required to perform their roles with no self-awareness of the artifice surrounding them. Through their efforts, movie audiences would be engrossed in the classic story like never before, transported not just into 19th-century Russia but also within the characters’ worlds.
Keira Knightley reveals, “I’ve always loved history – reading about it, playing it out on-screen – because I feel it takes me out of the present; I fall into a fantasy, which I love doing.
“But this approach was such a very different concept for this piece, not doing a safe adaptation – and I was so excited. Joe called me into his office and had all these drawings up and explained it to me, and I thought, ‘Let’s go for it!’”
With the lead actress setting the tone, the rest of the cast rose to the challenge as well; producer Paul Webster notes, “They took the text, and Joe’s more simple and classical approach, very seriously. There could be no hint of self-consciousness, and no post-modern rationalization of the story. The theatricality of the vision had to be of a piece with the seriousness of the actor’s performances and their belief in their characters’ arcs.”
Jude Law remarks, “These are people in a world where they are able to play strange social games without feeling hindered by a sense of reality. Joe created an environment where we could step into that world.”
Tim Bevan elaborates, “When we are first introduced to Anna Karenina, her family, and the aristocratic society within which she plays a pivotal role, emotions are artfully withheld as they would have been within the high society of that time and place.
“When private feelings arise irrevocably to the surface over the course of the film, hearts and souls are awakened, causing reverberations throughout society.”
Wright observes, “Anna is ‘the perfect wife,’ she’s ‘Madame Karenin,’ and she and her husband hold a certain place in society. Then, a bolt of lightning – in the form of another man – opens her up to another way of living, of loving, and of being.”
Tom Stoppard remarks, “Something happens to her which has never happened before, something which I would say she didn’t even know about. She has not lived a deprived life, but a life in which something has been missing.”
Wright adds, “When you think of a love story, it’s Romeo and Juliet, or star-crossed lovers, or a love that overcomes obstacles. Yet that’s not what this story is, or does. Tolstoy himself described War and Peace as his epic political novel and Anna Karenina as being a domestic story. Meaning, it’s about families and love – which are epic to us all.
“The theatre setting enhances the idea that each individual is on show, performing their given role within society. As they watch those around them, they themselves are at the same time being observed. The principal characters’ dilemmas are enhanced and heightened within the artificial environments, and the moviegoing audience will be compelled to use their imaginations.”
The theatre setting notwithstanding, Wright was looking for actors who could be “naturalistic rather than stylized, although capable of both – even if their characters were not. I was excited to work with actors in a theatre context, and so in some ways they would be a ‘theatre company.’”
Casting director Jina Jay enthuses, “There were so many rich characters – coming from a great novel – for actors to take on.” Accordingly, Jay was able to secure estimable talent for even the smaller roles, but for the apex of the story’s love triangle no search was ever undertaken; it was on their most recent picture together, Atonement, that Wright and Knightley had first had a conversation about the actress one day portraying Anna.
Wright was confident that Knightley could take on the emotionally complex character and make it her own. He reflects, “We’ve grown up in our movie work together, really. She works so hard, with such attention to detail. Keira is an incredibly strong woman, and utterly fearless – qualities that I wanted to play up in this movie.”
Webster states, “Joe and Keira bring out the best in each other. We knew this was going to be the most demanding role of her career, and that she could fully embrace the challenges of playing Anna.”
Wright muses, “While in real life she is one of the most likable people you will ever meet, on-screen she is not afraid to court dislike if that’s what the character requires. I’m proud of her for what she’s done in our movie. She understands the darker places that some of us can go to, and that was definitely necessary for Anna.”
Stoppard opines, “Anna behaves badly some of the time, and anyone playing her has got to grab hold of this nettling aspect. Neither the novel nor our film is in the business of moral justification.”
Knightley read the novel anew as preparation, and found that her own feelings towards the character had evolved. She says, “I remembered the book as being just incredibly romantic with this extraordinary character. But in re-reading the novel just before we started filming, I found it magnificent but also much, much darker – and realized that there is the huge question of whether Anna Karenina is a heroine or an anti-heroine. I believe that was so even for Tolstoy. My copy got heavily marked up, and Joe and I were constantly questioning ourselves about Anna; we felt we should show the good and the bad, the kindness and the cruelty. I also discussed this with Tom. I tried to understand Anna and capture her all, so Anna Karenina became the hardest project I’ve done; I knew I had to try to play her without making her ‘too nice.’
“Stories like this one are lasting because they are studies on the human condition as a whole, here within one character. Anna is a great and fallible character, one who speaks to what makes us human; in her, you see the flaws, the heroics, and the terrifying emotions. You care about her, and can’t help but recognize yourself.”
Webster offers, “I think that Tolstoy himself began to fall in love with the character of Anna, which only reinforced the theme of falling in love in spite of yourself.”
Stoppard muses, “In quite a number of upper-class aristocratic societies one could think of a fling, an adulterous affair, as being more or less sanctioned. This is not a particularly Russian phenomenon by any means; one could say it’s not unknown in Britain.
“The difference between what Anna does and what umpteen other people of her acquaintance might have done or been doing, is that it’s not a pleasant dalliance or a diversion. This woman was very young when she married, and has been married a good long time. For her, it is as though she is getting a late chance to live her real life. But doing so affects her standing in society. As it’s said, ‘She did worse than break the law, she broke the rules.’”
Bevan elaborates further on the complex iconic character who has divided opinion for generations, noting that “the reader and the viewer cannot help but be drawn to her story. You know that she is flawed, yet Anna is not necessarily a woman who one will instantly feel sympathy for. Keira, in terms of her exploration of the character, brings a great deal of mature artistry to portraying her.”
Law sought to do the same in playing the cuckolded older husband of Anna, altering his own physical appearance and conveying the quiet dignity and fortitude of a much-respected member of society.
Bevan marvels, “It was brave of Jude taking on the part of the older man, as it were. He dove into this character, and I feel that he and Tom have imparted a whole dimension to Karenin that isn’t necessarily in the book. He’s a more rounded character here, not just a cold fish.”
The actor explains, “Karenin holds an influential position within government and is completely focused on his work – which he is good at. He has a strict moral code of honor and loyalty, and is spontaneous with neither his behavior nor his affections, even in the privacy of his own home with his family. The significance of his wife’s indiscretion has the power to jeopardize not only their marriage but also the entire edifice of Russian high society.
“I’m sympathetic to all the characters in the story; you need to understand all sides, and that’s part of why Tolstoy’s novel is so beloved and still engenders discussion. To me, Karenin is ripe to have his heart broken. My feeling is that as far as Karenin sees it, he is offering everything that he should to the marriage. What he doesn’t necessarily bring is passion and romance, and that is not necessarily something that’s in him; it’s probably the way he was brought up, and probably the way he observed his parents behaving. He is carrying his heart as best he knows it.”
Stoppard notes, “Karenin is, for many people, the most sympathetic member of the triangle. We’re the product of our experience and conditioning, and that’s Karenin. It’s a slippery slope if you describe him as ‘a dull man;’ he is probably fascinating to other people in government when they are talking shop. The notion of service, to an empire itself supported by paperwork, is in Karenin’s bones.”
Law adds, “What’s wonderful about the part is that you see slowly and gradually how his vulnerability awakens; he takes his eyes off his work, which is so much a defining part of him, and the human being comes out to fight for his wife and family. By the end, he’s travelled quite an interesting journey.”
Knightley remarks, “Jude and I both wanted to get at how there is love between the couple; tragically, she doesn’t think there is, and he is unable to vocalize it.”
Law admits, “Those are not the easiest of scenes to play opposite another actor; Keira and I took a lot of time to prepare with Joe, talking about the happier times in their marriage, so that we could push the emotions further on-set.”
Wright explains, “I wanted to give Jude the space to shine, since I know what a great character actor he can be; we hadn’t seen him in a role like this in a while.”
Aaron Taylor-Johnson was already on Wright’s radar as a potential Count Vronsky, who opens Anna’s eyes to passion but at too high a price. When Wright screen-tested the rising star in California with Knightley, he saw “someone who would commit to the part, coupled with a physicality that made Aaron perfect for the role of someone who is seductive but sensitive. Also, Aaron is slightly younger than Keira, and Vronsky is younger than Anna in the novel.”
Webster says, “Aaron has a natural aptitude for the camera, and he is very attuned to what it needs to see – just how little, or how much, he needs to do in a scene.”
From the first, Taylor-Johnson was “hugely impressed” with his leading lady, as “I’ve never seen anyone put in as much preparation as she did for Anna Karenina. Her copy of the book had color-coded stickers, and she would check scenes with the script. I also know that she spoke with people who have been to some of the depths that Anna goes to.
“As an actor, she will challenge you in the best way possible. She will be there for you 100%, including when it’s your own close-up.”
Knightley praises Taylor-Johnson as being “an instinctual actor – and one whose instincts are pretty much bang-on every time.”
Taylor-Johnson ascertains his character as being “from a privileged background, and he is an officer on his way up. But when he encounters Anna, his world changes dramatically; he’s never seen anything like her, and it’s extraordinary. He knows he has to have her and he uses his charm to engage her. He chases her even though she’s a married woman; there was a societal allowance for mistresses and affairs, but you never left your husband or wife for someone else because that meant being shunned. Yet Vronsky is devoting his all to Anna; he adores her and he can’t stop.”
Stoppard says, “What comes through in our film very positively is how Vronsky takes the lead in their relationship. He is a romantic figure, a beautiful boy.”
Taylor-Johnson adds, “At first you just see his arrogance, but then you see how much he is willing to give up for her and how his confidence comes from the heart. Joe and I discussed whether he was naïve or not; I kept saying, ‘He’s honest.’ I can relate to a lot about Vronsky, and because of that I felt I could play him.”
The parallel story of Levin’s love for Kitty is gentler and more innocent than Anna’s for Vronsky, yet it too falters under the scrutiny of society. Actor Domhnall Gleeson had auditioned for Wright, but it wasn’t until he performed the part of Levin at a table read – at which his empathetic take on the character impressed one and all – that the part suddenly became his. One facet of the material that the actor sought to convey was “the wry sense of humor shooting through it, which I appreciate; this story gets to the depths of what it means to be alive.”
As Gleeson sees it, “Levin’s idea of love is at the same time very pure and blinkered, in that he sees only this one person to love; he’s shooting for the absolute ideal, which isn’t always compatible with real life. But in the story, he is one of the only people who spends any time in the real world; he is in a very real place with love, one not based on artifice. That is mirrored in the way he chooses to live his life, which is at a distance from St. Petersburg and Moscow society – away from the theatre, literally. He makes his life in the real world out in the countryside, and is in fact very preoccupied with farming. He is outside sophisticated society.
“Even so, he’s caught between the aristocracy and the serfs; he’s trying to find a home in nature while the woman he loves is in a place which is artificial to him. But they do have a true connection, which means that Levin has to journey to try to win Kitty and bring her back to his real world. He realizes that she’s an even better woman than he thought.”
Kitty is played by up-and-coming Swedish actress Alicia Vikander, in her first English-language role. The role promised an emotional journey for Vikander to undertake, with her character beginning as an innocent and radiant ingénue before experiencing heartbreak upon Vronsky’s rejecting her and then coming to terms with life and love.
The actress’ years of real-life training as a ballet dancer proved beneficial. She notes, “Domhnall and I worked with [choreographer] Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui to get into contact with the characters through movement. How Kitty walks or runs into a room at the start of the story and how she is in the last scenes, there’s a complete difference. She proves herself to be very un-judgemental, considering her status in society, and this better prepares her for what comes later.”
Bevan says, “Audiences may not have seen Domhnall or Alicia before, but they are excellent – and, as they are also young people like their characters, there is a freshness to their work.”
“They complement each other,” agrees Webster. “Alicia grasped the opportunity of this role with both hands, and Domhnall shows what a powerful actor he is.”
Invited to reunite with the filmmakers and leading lady with whom he made Pride & Prejudice, BAFTA Award winner Matthew Macfadyen leapt at the chance to portray Oblonksy, Anna’s brother. The actor enthuses, “Oblonsky is incorrigible; he’s disarmingly direct and brings humor and warmth to the story as he tries to help the people he loves and cares about, particularly in attempting to be a matchmaker for his friend Levin.
“Oblonsky is one of those people who lights up a dinner party when they come in. He has a wandering eye. He likes the pleasures of the flesh, drinking and eating; to me, he was a very attractive character because he doesn’t suffer from terrible introspection. I don’t see him as ‘a bad man,’ and I hugely enjoyed playing this part – except for the moustache I had to grow.”
“Matthew is a hoot in this role,” enthuses Emmy Award-winning actress Kelly Macdonald, who signed on to play Dolly, wife of Oblonsky and sister-in-law to Anna. “He’s played Oblonsky in just the right way: charismatic, frustrating, lovable – and selfishly addicted to passion.”
The actress felt that she understood Dolly’s temperament, remarking that “Dolly is married to a man she adores, she’s passionate about her family, and she’s pregnant all the time. She is completely happy with her lot in life before finding out about her husband’s affair with the woman who is meant to be looking after their children.
“So it’s devastating for her when she realizes that she’s been made a fool of and her relationship with Anna, whom she admires and with whom she shares a sisterly love, helps her. She refines her focus on family. I feel that in the end Dolly resigns herself to his behavior; she loves her husband and she knows he loves her. But she is not brave enough to attempt what Anna does, which is to seek an independent life – one that no woman in that time and place could really have.”
As a two-time Olivier Award winner, Ruth Wilson’s stage experience made her particularly well-qualified for the movie’s theatrical setting; as Princess Betsy Tverskoy, the actress is resplendent in dramatic and exotic costumes amidst high-society artificiality. Wilson admits, “I had free rein from Joe to be more excessive than I would have been in a more traditional period drama. It was great fun to work with [dialect coach] Jill McCullough on Betsy’s speaking voice.
“Betsy also speaks to this film’s themes of love, class, and moral conduct, in that she represents a superficial level of love, lust, and desire; everything is for show, as she exists in a world which is all about beauty and image over anything substantial. Her soirée is like a goldfish bowl for people trying to appear rich and powerful, and real feeling is lacking.”
Countess Vronsky, the cynical mother of Count Vronsky and his brother Alexander, is portrayed by Olivia Williams. Having worked with Wright on Hanna, she was keen to rejoin him on Anna Karenina, having found that “making a movie with Joe and his team is a genuine collaboration.” Williams was intrigued by her character, “an aging beauty – that’s a phrase which Tom Stoppard put in the stage directions – and to play her I decided to channel [Academy Award-winning actress] Peggy Ashcroft.
“There’s subtext to my character’s introductory scene with Anna; her foremost motivation is ambition, with love a long way down the list. She feels she has a façade to maintain, trying to preserve a fabulous society history. There were many details that I worked out for the character with the costume and hair and make-up departments. But at one point Joe did have to tell me, ‘Don’t wear your subtext!’”
Two-time Academy Award nominee Emily Watson was tapped to play Countess Lydia Ivanovna, who claims the moral high ground in disapproving of Anna’s behavior. The actress opines, “Her fervor is probably repressed sexual energy, and she mistakes her own passion for Karenin for religious zeal. She sails about like a steam ship, and the costumes gave me that sense of posture.
“This story is so sophisticated, set in a time more valorous and chivalrous than our own, and we’re doing it in a way which I found liberating.”
Michelle Dockery, who had filmed a memorable cameo for Wright in Hanna just before coming to world attention in the television series phenomenon Downton Abbey, appears in Anna Karenina as Princess Myagkaya, who is “one of the socialites within Betsy’s circle. I love Joe’s detailed way of working, and this was quite a fun character to play; she takes an interest in Anna and although I would like to think that she does it out of the goodness of her heart, I believe it’s more that she likes being associated with a scandal!”
Count Vronsky’s brother Alexander Vronsky is played by French actor Raphael Personnaz, who joined the Anna Karenina cast for his first English-language role. Personnaz saw his character as being “dominated by what his mother thinks and wants, and the codes of society. Joe’s word to me about the character was ‘square.’ I feel that Alexander doesn’t have any love in his life, so he’s a sad character in a way. Yet at that period in Russia, I don’t know that happiness and love were a goal for most people; in this story, Anna and Count Vronsky are exceptions.”
Macdonald remarks, “This is a great ensemble; I’d be looking forward to seeing this movie even if I weren’t in it. There are a number of scenes with lots of actors in them, but with Joe’s enthusiasm you never feel like you are getting lost.”
Macfadyen adds, “Joe has the knack of making everyone feel they’re like family. He is always interested in actors and their processes.”
Webster reports, “With the rehearsals they’ve had, the actors come to the set comfortable with who their characters are. Joe leaves them room to improvise, and allows for happy accidents that will enrich their process – and his.”