Anna Karenina
Credit: Keira Knightley in 'Anna Karenina'
Anna Karenina
Credit: Keira Knightley in 'Anna Karenina'

Keira Knightley’s new film, Anna Karenina, is like a snowglobe version of Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel.

As crafted by filmmaker Joe Wright (who directed Knightley in Atonement and Pride & Prejudice), the epic tale of a woman who cheats on her politically powerful husband (Jude Law) plays out almost entirely within the confines of a lush theater, which magically shapeshifts into any and all parts of czarist Russia.

But there’s more resonance to the film (which is in theaters now) than clever production design and lavish costumes. Knightley portrays a woman who is no victim, who consciously chooses to trade her fate and the misfortune that follows for a brief run of passion with the younger Count Vronsky, played by Kick-Ass actor Aaron Taylor-Johnson.

Private indiscretions regularly upend public lives, as we’ve seen recently in everything from the break-up of Twilight actors Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson, to Gen. David Petraeus’ resignation from the CIA over an affair with his biographer. We are fascinated by sex scandals, always have been, and always will be. We love to judge, and that’s what readers have been doing to the character of Anna Karenina ever since Tolstoy’s book was published in 1877.

Knightley talked with Prize Fighter about capturing the inner turmoil of a woman whose snowglobe world has shattered open — all because she hurled it to the ground herself.

EW: As the movie has screened for award voters and critics, what do you find them reacting to the strongest?

Keira Knightley: I guess it’s the whole idea that she’s the anti-heroine as well as the heroine. It’s kind of the choice to play her as not always completely likable or innocent, as well as obviously the entire take on the film — the theatrical, kind of stylized thing.

What are the risks of playing a character who is so well-established in classic literature, but also many other film adaptations?

You don’t want to over-simplify her. That was the only thing that I thought would be the challenge, and it’s trying to not just simply play her as one thing or the other but get all the different shades into her, because I think that’s the point of the character, really.

It’s the story of a downfall – one of her own making. The enigmatic nature of Anna is what has made the book so compelling for more than a century. Do you feel you understand her?

You’re never going to completely understand yourself or anyone that you know, but when you’re creating a character, you have to come up with the reasons behind everything — even if it’s the most inexplicable act ever, you have to ground that. I think to kind of just go, “Oh, I don’t know. She just does it” — that might work for some people, but it’s not what I find interesting.

What did you find to be the most inexplicable part of Anna?

I suppose the self-destruct button is always fascinating, and people who have that. And her inability to lie I found very interesting. That is one of the things that destroys her the most, the inability to play the game. I quite liked that. Society is about performing and isn’t necessarily about being natural to yourself or honest. It’s about playing by the rules, and those people that don’t, the pack turns on them. I think that’s as true today as it was back then.

Jude Law plays the husband she cheats on, a government official who is respected and well-liked. I kept expecting his Alexei Karenin to be a monster, but he’s not.

I think he often is depicted that way. We were all interested in the idea that Tolstoy when he first started writing the novel, his intention was to write a novel about a great man whose wife commits a crime against him. So the novel actually started with Karenin as the hero, and as he went on writing it, Anna rose up in front of him, and he ended up falling in love with her and getting fascinated by her, which is completely understandable.

But the man she betrays is pretty much a good man. His only crime is being perhaps a little passionless.

If you were choosing to play the kind of moral ambiguity of Anna, you get to do something interesting with Karenin as well, which is say, yes, you can see why this marriage isn’t working, and yes, you can see that this somebody who is definitely not comfortable in his emotional state and can’t express that, but that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t feel things, and that doesn’t mean that there isn’t love there.

She seems to be daring him to hate her, and yet even after he discovers the affair he is quite kind to her. I found him to be the most sympathetic of the characters.

He does generous things — yeah, yeah, absolutely. Equally, to that, you go, “But he can never express and never give the support and never give,” so there’s wrongs and rights on both sides, and I think that’s what we were trying to look at.

We see it resonating today – people are still brought down by sex scandals, no matter their rank or reputation.

Fundamentally, if you take away the fantasy aspect of the film, what the film is about is emotion, and it’s about love and the whole spectrum of that emotion. Tom Stoppard, when he wrote the adaptation, said, “This is a thesis on love.” I don’t think that emotion has changed. I don’t think it matters whether you put it in a sci-fi or you put it in the Dark Ages or whenever you put it. That inexplicable, magical, wonderful, horrible emotion – love — is something that we still feel in the same way, and yet is completely personal to each and every single one of us.

The film tells the story within a theater, as if it’s all a play – as opposed to trying to recreate exterior sets, etc. Did it feel very abstract when you were shooting, or did you understand exactly how it would work?

The whole thing was pretty intense because we didn’t know how it was going to work. When he decided to do this stylized setting, we wondered how it was going to come together, how the emotional performances were going to tie in. So the whole thing was very long, with very technical days. So I think anything with a lot of emotion, if you’re shooting it incredibly technically, gets to be difficult.

There seemed to be a lot of choreography, even if it wasn’t a dance sequence – just a lot of tightly choreographed movements of the cast and camera. Which was the hardest sequence to pull off?

I think I had to spin into one shot when the camera was moving at the same time, and the camera was catching my reflection in that mirror, and I had to get my head in the right angle for one beam of light and time a teardrop to fall at exactly at that moment.

A real teardrop? Every time?

Yeah, you don’t get fake ones. [Laughs] Yeah, real ones. Yeah, digital — that would have been great! If you’re doing something that’s that technical, it’s quite tricky. There wasn’t a day that didn’t involve everybody going, “How do we do this?” and putting our heads together and trying to figure it out, and that’s what makes it fun I think.

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