Keira Knightley revealed to me she is over the stage fright that used to make her freeze when she was filming a movie.
She told me she took time off to go travelling, and when she got back there was ‘the discovery that a lot of what I was suffering from on film sets was stage fright’.
To conquer it, she found that delving more into the character she was playing helped — and so did acting live on stage.
‘It’s easier for me now, and even if I do freeze I know how to deal with it,’ she says.
Well, whatever she’s doing, it’s working, because Keira gives her best screen performance, and one of the best of the year, in Joe Wright’s exquisite and exciting new Anna Karenina, based on Tom Stoppard’s brilliant adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s novel.
There were times, Keira admitted, that she wanted to give Anna a good shake.
‘She’s a wonderful character, but very strange and complex. She is needy and manipulative and then there are sides of her that are vulnerable and innocent, and I sometimes think it’s the innocence that pulls her down.
‘She will not see reality and when she does, it destroys her.
‘I found her a challenging person,’ she says, adding with a laugh: ‘I wanted to shake her and tell her to pull herself together.’
Anna’s affair with handsome cavalry Count Vronsky, played with scalding intensity by Aaron Johnson, scandalises society.
There’s a scene, during an opulent ball, where Anna, her face flushed, and Vronsky dance with such passionate fierceness that I wanted to shout: ‘Get a room!’
No wonder Keira noted that Johnson ‘works from a very physical place’, adding that ‘when a man dances like that, you’re definitely going to fall for him’.
After they make love for the first time, Keira’s Anna declares to her illicit lover that she feels like a starving beggar being given food.
‘You completely see where she’s coming from, but you want to choke her at the same time because at no point can she see what is right in front of her. Love is never enough for her.’
Anna’s encounters with Vronsky leave her husband Karenin (an almost unrecognisable Jude Law) a cuckold and, in retaliation, he attempts to stop her from seeing their young son.
‘She starts to crumble and the shame and the guilt takes her over, and she believes that she’s bad.’
Keira and director Wright would have long discussions about Anna, during which he would shout ‘I hate her, I hate her!’ and Keira would attempt to defend her.
Though she concedes there were times when she, too, thought: ‘I really hate this person.’
She agrees with Stoppard’s assertion that Tolstoy’s story is a thesis on all forms of love. ‘He’s got the pain, the madness, the destruction — and the romance is such a small element of the whole thing. He has managed to draw a picture of all of love’s extremes.’
The destruction and heartbreak that Anna brings to her relationships is counterpointed in the film by the relative happiness of Levin and Kitty (Domhnall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander). Giving equal weight to the often neglected second love story balances the film.
But it’s Keira’s scorching performance that anchors the movie.
And she looks ravishing. Jacqueline Durran’s costumes have a flavour of the 1870s coupled with a hint of Fifties Dior. Keira looks particularly fetching in a red silk taffeta gown with a plunging neckline. Durran mixes the fabulous gowns with all manner of fur: hats, capes and coats.
Keira acknowledges that using real fur was always going to be contentious, but it was necessary as a symbol.
‘It was very important that Anna be surrounded by death, and the fur gives that sense of her being suffocated,’ she says.
In addition to being swathed in furs, Anna is also adorned with millions of pounds worth of gems, loaned by Chanel. They, too, serve a purpose beyond mere decoration.
‘They represent that cut-glass perfection Anna displays that’s too perfect. A big part of the book focuses on Anna’s vanity, and as it all crumbles around her, the vanity increases.’ And so do the diamonds and pearls.
Wright, working with Stoppard, production designer Sarah Greenwood, cinematographer Seamus McGarvey and his producers Paul Webster, Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner, rejected the idea of a big conventional drama.
Instead, they encased Tolstoy’s tale in a theatre, and used the stage as a starting point, from which the action flows (though naturalistic scenes were shot in Russia).
The expressionistic approach doesn’t inhibit the action one iota, because within that framework the film’s sublime performances are realistic.
This Anna Karenina’s a literary blockbuster that I believe will feature heavily in the coming movie awards season.
Interestingly, Keira announced some time ago that blockbusters of the popcorn variety would not be ‘the majority of what I do’. But she’s not ruling one out, particularly now that movie technology is so good, ‘as long as it has a really wonderful story’. Alas, she tells me, ‘I haven’t found one yet’.
Well, perhaps she needs Stoppard to write it and Wright to direct.
They bring out the best in this actress who continues to dazzle and surprise.
The film opens here on September 7, and has a North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival next month.