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People in Film | Joe Wright
Updated March 09, 2011
Hanna’s director may have grown up in a puppet theater, but with each film, he proves that all the world’s a stage, he’s the puppet master.
Joe Wright | All the Stage, A World
Bold is an adjective that seems to inevitably attach itself to filmmaker Joe Wright. Since the start of his career, his choices – in material, approach, casting, etc – have been inspired and often surprising. Perhaps nowhere is this daring more on stage – quite literally – than in his adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s epic masterpiece ANNA KARENINA. But getting from reading Tolstoy to realizing a fevered theatrical dream in which Russian society is relocated to one massive theater space was no simple path. “When I read the book,” Wright remembers, “it spoke directly to the place that I found myself at in life. You hope you are like one of the characters, and you realize that you have been like another.” Inspired, Wright sought out playwright Tom Stoppard to adapt the novel into a screenplay. The two talked for hours, trying to unravel the gorgeous knot of emotions and actions that connect all the fascinating pieces in Tolstoy’s masterpiece. “We felt that we could get more to the heart of Anna, Levin, and all the characters by contemplating love among Imperial Russian society in the 1870s,” explains Wright. “I was also thinking about the movies in which Robert Altman masterfully interweaved intimate stories. The narrative threads we chose work as a kind of double helix, winding around each other in a multi-stranded portrait of a community.” With love as the key to unlock the novel, Wright started imagining his movie, scouting location after location with his team until he realized that he needed to make a bold change. The more Wright learned about 19th century imperial Russia, the more he was struck with its theatricality – its imported fashion appearing as costume drama; its tight circumspection feeling like constant spectatorship; its overblown performance spaces, be they opera houses, race tracks, or skating rinks. “Their ballrooms were often mirrored so that they could watch themselves and appreciate their own ‘performances’,” notes Wright. “Their whole existence became a performance with imported ideas of decorum, manners, and culture.” In the end, he hit upon staging the whole thing in a decaying theater, not as if it were a play, but as if Russian society were a theatrical experience. Rather than being contained by this conceit, ANNA KARENINA’s producer Paul Webster points out how expansive Wright’s vision became: “You’re going through doors into snowy landscapes, into mazes. The theatre space hosts an ice rink, a ball, an opera, a massive society soirée, and a horse race. This is a vast, sprawling movie.” But at the center of it, for Wright, is the single subject of love: “The heart of the story is the human heart. I am forever fascinated by why and how love works, and how sincere we are as human beings with our emotions.” For audiences, Wright binds the power of love with the power of his imagination. Or as Empire Magazine announces, “Bold, imaginative, thought-provoking and passionate, ANNA KARENINA puts Wright at the forefront of filmmaking in Britain. Or anywhere.”