Though it's set in the 1870s, "Anna Karenina" followed modern environmentally-friendly guidelines in its production. The Focus Features film, to quote a statement, "used sustainability strategies to reduce its carbon emissions and environmental impact." According to director Joe Wright, "They have a set of guidelines that they send to the production department, and they are followed." These included recycling bins on the soundstages at the U.K.'s Shepperton Studios and reduction of plastic and other waste. "It meant that none of us used plastic water bottles. We all used these cups that were given to us."
The rules didn't faze Keira Knightley, the film's titular star. "I do lots of recycling," says the actress, luminous but not exactly lovable as the complicated, doomed anti-heroine of the adaptation of Tolstoy's classic novel. "She is not a simple creature. She is a very complex one," says Knightley, whose impression of the young woman having an extramarital affair changed upon re-reading the book again pre-production. "The audience should have a complex relationship with her. I think Tolstoy is holding her up to be judged, condemned. I don't know that she's a victim — she's the maker of her own destruction. But we all can relate to being trapped."
Having worked on "Pride and Prejudice" and "Atonement" with Wright, Knightley put her trust in him and the theatrical, stylized approach he calls "a ballet with words." "Even though we didn't know if it was going to work or not we knew if was a group of people that was going to give everything to try and make it come together," she says.
Wright, a modern dance fan who grew up in his parents' puppet theater, felt that the theatrical staging would be an interesting experiment and also eliminate the need to shoot in Russian palaces and the associated travel and accommodation costs. Armed with storyboards and pictures, he got screenwriter Tom Stoppard's support, and his leading lady's. "Ten weeks before we started shooting he rang me up and said he had something to explain. He showed me sketches and drawings. With Joe, you always know that you're going to do something unexpected."
The theater milieu made sense, she says, because of the nature of Russian aristocracy at the time: they were besotted with everything French, from the language, dress and décor to mirror-lined ballrooms "so they could watch themselves performing." Wright held three weeks of movement workshops that played into the notion that "the aristocracy never did anything for themselves. A character can walk into a room and begin to sit down where there is no chair and suddenly a chair would appear," or keep walking while a servant changes his coat, Wright points out.
"The whole stylized movement aspect of it was very difficult 'cause I'd never done anything like that before," says Knightley. "It took a lot of rehearsal." No stranger to period films, however, she found Anna's spectacular wardrobe, based on an 1870s silhouette with 1950s Dior detail, "such a major part of the character" and fraught with symbolism. She cites the cage-like frame that creates the hoop of her skirt and the many veils she wears as metaphors for "a bird in a cage that couldn't get out," and her accessories made of fur and feathers as foreshadows of doom. "She's surrounded by death all the time." Her favorite costume was "the white one made of bed sheets" that she wore in several scenes.
While she has no preference between period and contemporary films, as long as the story is good, Knightley likes the fact that period requires you to "leave yourself behind. Your imagination is instantly needed. It's world you don't recognize with rules you don't know. In contemporary pieces it's about voyeurism. You bring your own experiences of life to that piece because you recognize the world."
Knightley returns to modern mode in Kenneth Branagh's reboot of the "Jack Ryan" franchise opposite Chris Pine, due for release in December 2013, and Wright, aptly, will return to the theater — he'll direct a production of "Trelawney of the Wells" in London next year.
"Anna Karenina" opens Nov. 16 in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Washington and Boston, expanding to 11 cities Nov. 23 and wider on November 30.