Last spring, Joe Wright had a big perplexing idea. After having scouted locations in St. Petersburg and Moscow for his screen version of Anna Karenina, he decided to start all over—two months before shooting began. “I was in danger of doing things I’d done before,” explains the British director, who’d already made two literary costume dramas, 2005’s Pride and Prejudice and 2007’s Atonement, both with Keira Knightley, who signed on to play Anna.
Instead, Wright devised a novel way to shoot Tom Stoppard’s screenplay. Nearly every scene, through a combination of creative staging and postproduction magic, would appear to be set on a stage: the opera, a ball, horse racing, ice skating—all of it contained within a theater. “It allowed me to explore the idea that society life in late-19th-century Russia was very much a performance,” he explains.
"Me with Domhnall Gleeson, who plays Levin, on set in his house. Levin is the only one in this story who really lives in reality—he's actually a stand-in for Tolstoy."
The thread of the story, according to Wright, is “love in all its forms.” Anna, the once dutiful wife of Alexei Karenin (Jude Law), succumbs to her ardor for Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Meanwhile, Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) falls equally hard for Kitty (Alicia Vikander). Adultery, especially in Anna’s case, has its consequences. In a society in which it was far more ghastly to break with etiquette than to break any law, it’s no wonder that what made the fictional heroines of the era (Karenina, Madame Bovary, Tess of the d’Urbervilles) feel so real was their waywardness—their tendency to, using Wright’s metaphor, go off-script. After all, he says, “reality is outside of the stage.”