Keira Knightley, the star of Anna Karenina, has never been to Russia

Husam Asi with Keira Knightley

During her acting career, Keira Knightley has portrayed three iconic Russian women, Lara in Dr. Zhivago, Sabina in Dangerous Method, and she can currently be seen as the eponymous Anna Karenina, but when I meet her at the Park Hyatt Hotel in Toronto, where she has come to attend the premiere of Anna Karenina at the Film Festival, she tells me that not only has she not been to Russia or learned a word in Russian, she doesn’t know much about the country.

“It seems completely perverse,” the fashionable and eloquent actress concedes, shaking her head. “With Lara in Dr. Zhivago, I just read the novel; I was only 16 and I don’t remember what I made of it. When I played Sabina in Dangerous Method I did a lot of research into the psychology of it and nothing into the Russian kind of cultural aspect of it because I didn’t have time and the books were very long.”

But when she was offered the part of one of the most iconic characters in Russian literature, Anna Karenina, the British actress was compelled to imbibe some of its underlying culture.

“I worked on the novel and then Orlando Figes’ book Natasha’s Dance, which is a cultural history of Russia so I learned a bit about 18th and 19th century aristocracy,” she nods her head contently.

Knightley was also excited about the initial plans to shoot some of the movie in St. Petersburg. “I was like ‘Finally, I’m going actually to make it to Russia,’” the animated actress enthuses. “But then all of a sudden it changed and we shot the whole thing in Shepperton Studios just outside London, so I would love one day to actually make it to Russia and see for myself.”

Indeed, having visited several locations in Russia, director Joe Wright opted for a theatrical approach in adapting one of the greatest novels ever written on screen, completely divorcing himself from the conventional approach of previous renditions.

The core of the 19th century tragic love story and its characters, however, remained intact. It follows Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley), the wife of a government official (Jude Law), as she embarks on an illicit affair with a cavalry officer Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson).

“We were thinking about Anna as sort of playing the role of the perfect mother and the perfect wife, and suddenly finding that she’d been miscast. So I think that way the two, the ideas, the concept of the film and the ideas from the character were one thing. The difficulty in putting them together was trying to keep her as this very emotional being that she is within this incredibly stylistic setting which was technically rather tricky,” Knightley explains.

In her first encounter with Tolstoy’s masterpiece at the age of 20, Knightley was swept away by its profound romance, thinking that Anna was wonderful, innocent and a martyr of love, but when she visited it again last year, while preparing for the movie, her impression of Anna was very different.

“She is much darker and much more complex,” she stresses. “I thought that Tolstoy absolutely hated her at certain points. He is not holding her up saying this is what we should all do. I thought at certain points he’s nearly holding her up saying this is the whore of Babylon. This is the corrupt woman. But also saying ‘I am in love with her, I completely understand her, her fight against hypocrisy admirable and wonderful.

“So we really wanted to get those two sides, that walking that line between being the heroine and anti-heroine and not simplifying her because I think she’s more interesting than that.”

Indeed the initial bliss that love endowed Anna with, quickly turns into a curse, when the affair becomes public. The society, which tolerates and accepts the philandering of her brother, vilifies and ostracises her and even deprives her of her own son. Yet, she accepts her inconsolable misery, refusing to succumb by giving up her love.

“We are looking at love, the emotions in its entirety, not just in that kind of sparkly romantic, wonderful kind of head-over-heels, happily-ever-after sort of way but equally on the other side that compromises, the loneliness, the jealousy, the madness; I think that’s true to life,” Knightley animatedly explains.

Inhabiting this compelling character has shed some new light on love for the 27-year-old. Being loved and adored by millions of fans around the world doesn’t satisfy her; she only values and treasures the love of a few.

“I think that people who don’t know me might love an imagined image of me,” she muses, her finger touches her chin. “For some reason, my face, whatever I wear, whatever story I choose to tell fits in with somebody’s imagination and they love this thing which is actually outside of me and is something that actually doesn’t exist as much as it exists here for a function. A few people actually love me which I am very fortunate about, but I do see these two things as an incredibly separate and I found that that’s the easiest way to deal with having a public image and then a private one.”

Last year, the London-born actress got engaged to someone she loves, musician James Righton, though she says that the engagement caught her by surprise. “I am not somebody that I ever thought would get married,” she laughs.

The daughter of an award-winning playwright, Sharman McDonald, and stage and television actor, Will Knightley, began acting at the age of 3, but only after playing a footballer in the surprising hit comedy Bend It Like Beckham did she attain international recognition. Soon after that, she joined Johnny Depp in the Pirates of the Caribbean, which cemented her as a bone fide star.

Later she became best known for starring in costume dramas, such as Pride & Prejudice (2005), for which she earned an Oscar nomination, Atonement (2007) and A Dangerous Method (2011). Initially, she was perturbed by working on too many of those period films, but she gradually came to terms with it and learned to love it.

“This is obviously my taste,” she enthuses. “I love history; I love reading historical novels and watching period pieces as well as performing in them. I think it’s something to do with the fantasy aspect. I think when you’re dealing with a time and a place that you don’t know, you leave yourself, culture and situation in life behind, and you get completely immersed in different characters and different emotions. Whether it’s a historical piece or a science fiction piece, they both do similar things for me, so that element of fantasy is what I love.”

The avaricious reader has been reading a lot about the French revolution, and she wishes to play Josephine Bonaparte, whom she finds fascinating. But for the moment, she is looking forward to starting to work with Sir Kenneth Branagh on his new espionage thriller, Jack Ryan.

“I get a lot of my scenes with him and I’m very excited,” she chimes excitedly.

A rare combination of the playfulness of a little girl and the wisdom of an old lady, the highest paid British actress is far more fun and jovial than the dark characters she often plays on screen. She is evidently someone who truly loves her craft and toils to excel in it, without letting fame poison her grand ambitions or distract her from her real goals.

Politics and controversy at Toronto Film Festival

Ben Affleck’s Argo was universally hailed as a clear winner at TIFF

There is no other film event that transforms its host city the way Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) does. During the 11-days, the sleepy city of Toronto becomes the thriving epicentre of the film industry, hosting thousands of industry professionals and film fans from all over the world, who come to savour the new offerings of world cinema.

Walking down the streets of downtown Toronto, you are bound to see long lines of film goers snaking around the block, waiting patiently in the scorching heat to see one of the 375 movies screened in the festival or hear the deafening screams of lucky star-spotters as they catch a glimpse of one of the hundreds of attending stars.

Thanks to the large number of premieres, TIFF attracts more  stars than any other festival. They parade the red carpet, shake hands, sign autographs and mingle with the swooning fans. Feeling at ease in Toronto, the celebrities are everywhere: in the bars, restaurants, hotel lobbies and the ubiquitous parties.

But TIFF is not only about stars and parties. Since its inception, 37 years ago, the festival has become one of the best barometers for Oscar contenders. Almost every executive, publicist, critic or reporter in Hollywood descends on Toronto in order to be the first to get a sneak preview the likely champions of the upcoming award season. This year a few contenders have risen above the dizzying foray.

Top of the list is the political thriller Argo, which was universally hailed as the forerunner in next year’s Oscar race.  Directed by and starring Ben Affleck, the film tells the true story of a CIA operative who contrives an audacious plan to smuggle out of Iran 6 US embassy employees, who managed to flee when the embassy was raided by Iranian demonstrators and take refuge at the Canadian ambassador’s house.

The movie received a rapturous applause and a standing ovation from the audience. Later, Ben Affleck was joined by his wife Jennifer Garner, his best friend Matt Damon and the rest of the cast to celebrate the success of the film at a glamorous restaurant.

Coincidentally, the morning after Argo’s premiere, Canada announced the closing of its embassy in Tehran, and a day later the American consulate in Benghazi and embassy in Cairo were stormed by angry demonstrators, which resulted in the death of the US ambassador to Libya.

The main competitor for Argo was another socio-political movie, The Master, which has been creating a lot of buzz since its premiere at the Venice Film Festival, where it won the best director for Paul Thomas Anderson, and co-stars Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman shared the best actor prize.

The Master has reportedly sparked hostility from angry Scientologists, who urged its producer Harvey Weinstein to cancel its release. Based on the life of Scientology founder, L. Ron Hubbard, the film tells the story of a WWII veteran, who gets manipulated by a charismatic sect leader.

Jennifer Laurence captivating performance at Silver Lining Playback made her a frontrunner at the Oscar’s race

Notorious for his uncanny ability to sense award-worthy projects, Harvey Weinstein offered another yet different potential Oscar contender: the light-hearted Silver Lining Playbook, which was applauded by critics and audiences alike.

Directed by David O’Russell and starring Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and Robert De Niro, the dark comedy centres on a bipolar former teacher (Cooper) who is taken under the wing of a widow (Lawrence) as he struggles to fit back in society. The captivating performances of Cooper and Lawrence make them natural frontrunners in the upcoming Oscar race.

Other movies dealing with disabilities that attracted attention were The Sessions, in which Helen Hunt bares all as a sex surrogate therapist who helps a comatose poet lose his virginity.  And Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone, in which Marion Cotillard delivers a riveting performance as a whale trainer who finds love after losing her legs in an accident.

Tom Hanks was also in town promoting the highly anticipated Cloud Atlas, six interwoven stories and grand themes of karma and compassion. The film, directed by Tom Tykwer and the Wachowski brothers,  didn’t live up the hype, leaving the audience confused and critics divided.

Keira Knightley failed to impress in Anna Karenina

The Brits were here in force too but, unlike the previous few years, their movies didn’t dominate the festival. Keira Knightley, accompanied by director Joe Wright, attended the premiere of Anna Karenina, which benefited from sumptuous production design but was short on character development and performance, leaving critics and audiences unimpressed.

Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts hit the parties to promote The Impossible, a harrowing story about a family who reunite after being ruptured by the 2003 Christmas tsunami. While Olivia Williams was accompanying her co-stars in Hyde Park On Hudson, Bill Murray and Laura Linney, while promoting the movie about the love story between the American president Franklin D Roosevelt and his distant cousin Margaret Stuckley.

Harry Potter’s Emma Watson also delighted her fans as she marched down the red carpet at the premiere of her new teen movie, Perks of Being A Wallflower, in which she falls in love with an introvert freshman.

But the star who provoked the loudest screams and most attention from fans was Twilight’s Kristen Stewart, who endowed Toronto with her first public appearance since the revelation of her love affair with the director of Snow White and the Huntsman. She arrived in Toronto to attend the premiere of her new movie On The Road.

While stars glittered on red carpet and at glitzy parties, studio executives and other buyers were hunting treasures in the darkness of screening rooms. But it seems that

Helen Hunt bares all in The Sessions

treasures were in short supply this year.

Nancy Utley, the head of Marketing at Fox Searchlight, told me that she had watched 20 movies, but nothing had tickled her fancy, leaving the festival empty handed. Her sentiment was echoed by the other studio executives, such as Stacey Snider from DreamWorks who came looking for new talent. “I was impressed by a Danish director, and the director of Impossible, and the David Geffen documentary,” she told me when I bumped into her in the hotel lobby. The lucky directors will most likely be invited to the studio, which is headed by Steven Spielberg, for a chat.

By contrast, however, the co-chairman of Lionsgate, Rob Friedman, told me that he felt good about the movies that his company had acquired during the festival, including Thanks For Sharing, Much Ado About Nothing and Emperor.

By the second week of the festival, many of Hollywood’s big players have left Toronto, which gradually fades back to normality as the festival begins to wind down.