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.