For 'Anna Karenina' director Joe Wright, all the stage is a world

The Fresno BeeNovember 29, 2012 

One of the hallmarks of period films are the lavish locations used as backdrops to tell the story. Director Joe Wright took a different approach in his adaptation of "Anna Karenina" by having the action take place almost entirely within the confines of a Victorian era theater.

This was accomplished by first building the immense interior of the theater in a soundstage and then dressing and redressing everything from the stage to the rafters to accommodate different scenes. It's a smaller space than what's been the norm for films in this genre, but the close quarters took a lot of pressure off Wright.

"I felt totally liberated. It was a huge relief not to be going to various locations but to be in one spot where my imagination was completely switched on. It meant that sometimes we would come up against a challenge that wouldn't have arisen if the set had been in reality. But that just made me think harder," Wright says.

One such challenge was how to shoot an ice skating sequence inside the theater walls. The seats were removed and the production company behind England's "Dancing on Ice" television series created an ice rink within the parameters of the theater auditorium for a one-day shoot. The ice was allowed to melt away, so the space could be readied for its next redressing.

Because so much of the film was shot in one spot, crews had to work around the clock to change the look of the theater for the next day of shooting. The set never went dark during the 65 days of filming. All that work was captured with a stop-motion camera and that footage will be on the DVD.

Wright wanted to use the theater setting as a way of giving Leo Tolstoy's classic novel a more contemporary feeling.

"The themes of the story are universal, but there's a distant feel to the period that I want to avoid. I thought I was getting bogged down with period genre films and I wanted to try to create something that would be more expressive and gets closer to the eternal journey," Wright says.

The way the director staged the movie is different, but it's a return for him to a story about a strong and complicated woman as he had in "Atonement" and "Hannah." Wright never set out to make movies about strong women, but the characters do remind him of his older sister he describes as "an amazing, powerful woman."

In "Atonement" and "Pride & Prejudice," Wright used a more traditional style of filming. The only thing he brought from those film shoots to this one was Keira Knightley, who plays the ill-fated Anna Karenina.

"I wanted to make another film with Keira because as an actor she's developed in ways I find amazing. She refuses to conform to what a woman should be like even in this day and age of women feeling obligated to be pretty and nice. Keira expects and celebrates the violence in a woman's emotions," Wright says. "I think she's unafraid of expressing that in performances."

TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, rbentley@fresnobee.com or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.

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