Updated Monday, November 19, 2012 at 07:01 AM
Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin is a government official; an older man with, according to his creator, Leo Tolstoy, large tired eyes and a deliberate, ungraceful gait. “Without haste and without rest” is his motto, in a life so meticulously scheduled and compartmentalized that it comes as a shock to him that his wife, Anna, has eyes for another man. In Joe Wright’s lavishly theatrical screen version of “Anna Karenina” (opening Wednesday), he is played by a seemingly unlikely actor: Jude Law, the handsome Brit who burst on the scene with “Wilde” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” and who not so long ago might have seemed the obvious choice for Anna’s dashing young lover, Vronsky.
Law, at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this fall, said that he welcomed the opportunity “to play a part that had many elements that I hadn’t necessarily played before – and to contribute a tone musically that was different from everyone else [in the film]: a stillness in a world of rhythm and ballet, and a quietness in a time of tears and music.”
This “Anna Karenina,” scripted by British playwright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard and set by Wright on a stylized Russian theater stage, seems a whirl of constant motion; Law’s Karenin is the still point within it. As the other characters move in Russian society, Karenin’s world is focused more on religion.
“A lot of his love for Anna is mixed up in his devotion – he believes that his marriage is under the eyes of God, it isn’t going anywhere, it is blessed, it is holy. Therefore he has to understand it, and understand her, because it is unbreakable ... What you, I hope, see in our film is that man not falling as such, but feeling maybe for the first time, rather than thinking.”
Taking on the role meant a physical transformation; not a dramatic one requiring prosthetics, but one that nonetheless rendered Law almost unrecognizable.
“We thought, for a man who lived in his head, we wanted to draw attention to his head, so we had this idea of taking my hairline back and concentrating on the pate,” he said. Costume designer Jacqueline Durran created a monk-like wardrobe of stark tunics and priest-like collars, in sharp contrast to the elaborate fashions worn by the other characters. And Law created a physical vocabulary for Karenin: “He’s very much about straight lines, tucked knees, rigid hands — crane-like, almost. The only expression you might see is the cracking of a knuckle. Otherwise, there’s this rhythmic pulse to him, checking watches, keeping paper in line, everything just so.”
Law, who turns 40 next month, said he’s looking forward to returning to the stage: He’ll play Shakespeare’s “Henry V” on London’s West End in 2013. And though other film projects are on the horizon, his pleasure in “Anna Karenina” is evident.
“I feel that it’s the kind of film that comes along, unfortunately, not often enough — when a director is really grabbing the medium and trying a new language,” he said. “There’s a passion to this film and a sincerity and a vision. I’m just thrilled that I was invited to be a part of the adventure.”
Moira Macdonald: firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-464-2725.
Opens Wednesday at Pacific Place and Lincoln Square. Rated R for some sexuality and violence. For a review, go Wednesday to www.seattletimes.com/movies or pick up a copy of Friday’s MovieTimes.
Laurie Sparham / Focus Features
Jude Law as Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin in “Anna Karenina.”