Melodrama and Adaption: The Films of Joe Wright


Joe Wright and Keira Knightley on the set of Anna Karenina

Pride and Prejudice is my first film with a happy ending. Before, I naively thought they were a cop-out, but now I've come to believe that happy endings and wish-fulfillment are an incredibly important part of our cultural life." —Joe Wright

The value of wish fulfillment in cultural life is hardly something Americans need to be reminded of, as we live and die for Manifest Destiny and the American dream. But what is the root of this fundamental longing for happy endings and how does it manifest itself in differing cultural, historical, and social contexts?

British director Joe Wright seeks to answer this question each time he steps behind the camera, not because his films all have happy endings (many do not), but because he conveys the complexity of humanity and the importance of hope through his expression of the tragedy of its opposite: melodrama. Wright makes films about love, the human condition, the powerless up against a powerful system, and the dangers of growing up and going out into the world. Throughout them he uses classical melodramatic elements like color, mirror, music, and adaptation, each of which he makes his own.


Dunkirk Beach in Atonement

Without delving too deeply in the problems of film adaptation, Wright’s adapted works—Pride and Prejudice (2005), Atonement (2007), The Soloist (2009), and Anna Karenina (2012)—should be viewed not with the goal of discerning which does it better, the book or the movie, but rather as introducing a visual dimension to a story while maintaining its tone, character layer, and narrative. Only by doing so can the adaption show us something truly new about the original work. Often with Wright, this "something new" derives from his distinctive tracking shots, color palette and the emotional current of the musical soundtrack.

Although fidelity has relevance in talking about film adaptation, Wright allows his audience to intellectually use filmic devices to explore emotions. For example, Atonement makes use of a five-and-a-half-minute tracking shot on Dunkirk Beach, ending on a scene of what Boston.com’s Jake Coyle calls "a grim circus of defeat and chaos." Although the use of a single shot may have arisen out of necessity (money, extras, time, tide), it does more for the film than almost any other shot, drawing the viewer into the drama with every painstaking second. Wright employs the tracking shot in Pride and Prejudice as well, giving the viewer a similarly relentless building of tension, drama and realism in situations that might feel otherwise unreal.


The pastel colors of Hanna


Keira Knightly in the green dress in 
Atonement.

Wright’s use of color could fill an entire post of its own, but a brief example from Hanna (2011) demonstrates how color acts as a narrator in many of Wright’s films. Hanna cinematographer Alwin Küchler says: "Fairytale illustrations are mostly done in primary colors, and we worked with that idea, but we also wanted things to change as Hanna’s journey progresses and her view of the world shifts from naive to nuanced, from black-and-white to gray." American Cinematographer goes on to explain that Küchler looked for color in the natural landscapes of Finland, Morocco and Germany and then reinforced them with the help of production designer Sarah Greenwood and costume designer Lucie Bates.

Color and changes in color coding for characters plays an important role in visual melodramas. Classic baroque coloring shows rich colors that provide texture on screen, which stick in our memory. Who can forget the rich green dress Keira Knightly wears in Atonement? Perhaps it reminds us of Tippi Hedren in Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds, evoking contradictory feelings toward the character that are imperative to the film's emotional narrative. Yes there is lust, but there is also envy from Saoirse Ronan's character, who triggers the central conflict of the film while Knightley is wearing the green dress. 


Jamie Foxx in The Soloist

Finally, there is the musical score to contend with. Wright has worked with composer Dario Marianelli on all of his films except Hanna (on which he collaborate with The Chemical Brothers), and their scores are not only powerful emotional tools, but driving narrative devices as well. From the rat-a-tat-tat of the typewriter, pacing the movements of the characters and emphasizing the significance of the written word in Atonement, to the patient classical piano and swelling crescendos of Pride and Prejudice, to the sharp, warning direction of the cello in The Soloist, Wright uses music like few other directors, and his new film Anna Karenina promises to do the same.

The trailer for Anna Karenina evokes a nostalgia as dark and unrelenting as a Russian winter night, and what better way to end the year than with a Slavic melodrama from a proven master of the genre. Variety's Lisa Felperin calls Anna Karenina “glorious, from Seamus McGarvey's bejeweled lensing and Dario Marianellis delicate score, to Sarah Greenwood's exquisite Fabergé-egg production design.”

At 40, Wright has already achieved what many directors aim for in a lifetime. It’s no surprise he is the youngest director to have a film open the Venice Film Festival (Atonement in 2007) and his films have been nominated for 10 Academy Awards (Atonement won for, unsurprisingly, Best Original Score). Wright’s direction is as emotionally deep as that of a 90-year-old reflecting on life and, at times, as challenging as Russian literature. His melodramatic sensibility continues to move viewers emotionally and intellectually, providing reason, and an excuse, to not mask emotions but rather to settle into the melancholy of life. And even though he's fulfilled so many of his own wishes at such a young age, Wright shows no signs of slowing down, and the same brilliant ideas, emotions, textures, and intellect can be expected from Anna Karenina.

Join us for An Evening with Joe Wright at the Film Society of Lincoln Center on Thursday, November 1, featuring a preview screening of Anna Karenina followed by an extended conversation with Wright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard, plus a screening of his award-winning Atonement.

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