David Mermelstein is an AwardsLine contributor. This story appeared in the Nov. 28 issue of AwardsLine.
For Dario Marianelli, who has scored all but one of Joe Wright’s five films, Anna Karenina presented exciting challenges. Wright’s fragmented telling of Tolstoy’s great novel afforded the composer new opportunities for musical expression—even as the film hewed to the story’s period setting.
“There were huge opportunities by the film not being literal,” says Marianelli, who recently spoke by phone from England. “But because those opportunities were opened up, they had to be taken, and that’s hard work. I can’t remember a film where I worked so hard and so long. For more than a year, on and off.”
Beyond that, Wright’s film was heavily choreographed, so Marianelli’s music had to be ready especially
early. “It was a lot of work up front, written before the script was even finished, particularly the two waltzes. I had to write them first, then adjust them when they were shot and then adjust them again during the editing. It was an inordinate amount of work, but all worth it.”
The freedom extended to the kind of music Marianelli would write, and its instrumentation, including a surprising amount of brass. Anyone expecting buttoned-up strains will be surprised by the pulsing passion and robust comic flair of the composer’s score, which despite such indulgences remains appealingly tasteful and elegant.
“We started with the idea of two opposites,” Marianelli says, “the folk music, the earthy music toward which the character of Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) is attracted, and then the more sophisticated music of the aristocracy and also the pretense, the life on a stage. Then gradually more ideas came in, and they started interbreeding. We ended up with a lot less folk music and more of this new entity of the bands—rougher sounds coming into the sophisticated orchestra but still very pure high violin over simple piano or music-box notes.”
But a third element soon forced its way into Marianelli’s musical consciousness. “There was a necessity to have something that could give voice to the aspirations Anna (Keira Knightley) and Levin have to lead a life away from the stage. So I have a compass with three points, the third being this otherworldly music that had to be very pure and simple, and that represented the truth of a life they all wanted but couldn’t have—the escape they desired.”
The hardest part, of course, was getting started, and Marianelli points to that first waltz with particular affection. “I remembered recently that was the very first tune when I put my hands on the keyboard and wanted to send something to Joe to start the conversation,” the composer recalls. “This was May of last year, a full four or five months before the scene was shot. But I wanted to find something tender that could be danced to but that I could use at the end as well for when Anna dies. That slowly descending harmony—I’ll whistle it badly for you—that theme is particularly dear to me because it’s the first.”
He is equally partial to the clarity—rare for him, he says—that accompanied its articulation. “At that point, it was clear that it had to be something that could take this whirling moment when Anna falls in love with Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), when she’s enraptured or entrapped by him, but could also be used as a mournful commentary on her death. And I never let go of that in the months that followed. I found variations on the piano, in the orchestra, but substantially it was the same tune I had from day one. It’s like an old friend now. And if I have to go to the piano and play a bit from Anna Karenina, that’s what I will play.”