Revisiting ‘Anna Karenina’ with Keira Knightley and Joe Wright

LOS ANGELES – Last Thursday, “Twilight” fans everywhere were anxiously getting ready to take their final bite of Bella, Jacob and Edward.  And, as we soon discovered, history fans across the country were scouring to see if “Lincoln” was playing in a multiplex close by.  I, on the other hand, ended up revisiting one of this season’s expected awards season players, “Anna Karenina.”  

I originally screened “Anna Karenina” in the middle of the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival. And while I appreciated its visual splendor and inventive production design I found myself more enamored with the supporting performances of Alicia Vikander (Kitty) and Domhnall Gleeson (Levin) than touched  by Keira Knightley’s torn and morally conflicted Anna. That’s not to say Knightley isn’t impressive, but I wasn’t moved by the film’s third act as director Joe Wright — we assume — intended. And yet, over the past two months I have found myself wanting to experience Wright and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey’s masterful imagery and yet another gorgeous score by Dario Marianelli.  The time to watch “Karenina” again came during a busy award season Thursday.

The day began with a sit down interview in Beverly Hills with “Life of Pi’s” Ang Lee (more on that later this week) and then a mad dash over to Hollywood where Focus Features held one of their annual awards season talent lunches for the press. The studio has held these semi-intimate gatherings over the past two years for “The Kids are All Right,” “Pariah” and “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” and while the guests of honor rarely get a chance to eat their meal, the conversations have always been frank and enlightening on some level. Only Knightly and Wright were in town for this event, but both were more than eager to chat about their third collaboration together after “Pride and Prejudice” and “Atonement.”  

To this day, I still do not understand the negative reaction Knightley fosters in some moviegoers  and from some vocal members of the press.  It’s clear she has true acting talent (proof: “Pride and Prejudice,” “Atonement” and “A Dangerous Method” among other works) and anyone who has been in this business as long as I have can tell you her lack of pretense is hardly a charade (which isn’t something you can say for many of her peers).  And if her blunt and humble demeanor really is all a pretense, well, she is an even better actor than her detractors give her credit for.

Wright, on the other hand, has the typical director disposition in many ways. Get him talking about his latest project or filmmaking in general and you can see the passion light up his eyes.  Clearly, there is enthusiasm for the art form itself that has driven his success.  But, he’s been talking about “Anna Karenina” for awhile.  The anecdotes have been repeated to the point that Wright is almost an actor in a stage stage play.  They are great stories and insights, but (seemingly) at the end of a long publicity campaign even a different setting can’t make them seem familiar.

Later that night, I moderated a Q&A following a “Karenina” screening with Wright and McGarvey for a mixed guild audience. McGarvey was a blast revealing he’d had less than four weeks to transition from “The Avengers” to “Karenina” and he almost jumped out of his chair in delight when someone in the audience asked him about what lens filters he used to get the film’s diffused look (oh, and yes “Avengers” fans, Whedon has asked him to return for the sequel, but nothing is official).  Before the conversation, though, I sat in for a second viewing of “Karenina” and was transfixed one more. The production design is even more remarkable.  Marianelli’s score is even prettier.  Jude Law isn’t getting the proper credit for his superb performance as Karenin.  Moreover, Knightley’s turn is quite remarkable once you truly understand the stylistic tone Wright is going for.  And the ballroom sequence? Just superb. All and all, you can see why Focus isn’t giving up on trying to land some major Oscar nominations besides the expected craft nods such as costumes, score, production design and possibly cinematography. Then Friday came and one would assume their hearts probably fell just a bit.

The adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel had an OK start this past weekend averaging $19,688 per theater in 16 engagements. Any other time of year that would be great news, but when awards season competition such as “Silver Linings Playbook” debuts in the same number of theaters with a higher per screen ($28,625) and the aforementioned “Lincoln” grosses $21 million in just 1,775 engagements, well, it doesn’t look that great.  In hindsight, Nov. 16 does not look like it was the best release date as there was just too much competition in the general marketplace (you can say the same for “Playbook’s” underwhelming debut).  Of course, “Anna’s” box office and Oscar fate still hasn’t been written.  Perhaps these intriguing and entertaining conversations with some of the key members of the cast will convince you to go check it out for yourself.  Trust me, this is a movie you want to see on the big screen.

Find my conversations – conducted at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival – with all the film’s principal stars: Knightley, Wright, Aaron Johnson, Jude Law, Domhnall Gleeson and Matthew Mcfayden.  

Will the Thanksgiving holiday weekend give Focus and the “Anna” team more to celebrate? It ain’t over till Oscar sings and there’s still a little over six weeks until nomination ballots are due.

“Anna Karenina” is now playing in Los Angeles, New York, Washington, D.C., San Francisco and Chicago.