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Since bursting on the scene as a director, Joe Wright has become a filmmaker known for his striking visuals, amazing camerawork and gets excellent performances from his actors. At the age of 42, Wright has already made five movies with his sixth Pan, his first big budget Hollywood film being released: we will celebrate by looking at his life and career.
Wright is a London-lad, born and raised in the British capital. His parents, John and Lyndie were already involved in the art scene, founding the Little Angel Theatre in Islington, a specialist puppet theater company where Wright worked when he completed school. As a child, he developed an interest in acting and art and made Super 8 films. But Wright had severe dyslexia and he left school without any GCSEs, the most basic qualifications anyone can get in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Wright had to take the long route educationally to become director. He took acting classes at the Anna Scher Theatre School (now the Young Actors Theatre (Islington)) and acted on the stage. Wright completed a year-long art foundation course at the Camberwell College of Arts whose alumni includes Mike Leigh and Tim Roth. Wright followed his foundation course by attending Camberwell’s affiliated arts college Central Saint Martins, earning a degree in fine art and film.
It was during Wright’s final year at Central Saint Martins when he earned a scholarship to make a short film for the BBC which ended up winning awards and earned him the gig to direct the mini-series Nature Boy for the corporation, a drama about a nature loving 17-year-old who sets out to find his father who abandoned him as a child. The success of the show led to more TV gigs for Wright, leading him to the four-part costume drama Charles II: The Power and The Passion, looking at the reign of Charles II of England, Scotland and Ireland, examining the restoration, fearing he would end up like his father, his attempts to bring harmony between Protestants and Catholics, the growing power of Parliament and his relationship with his wife and illegitimate son. It was a well received series when it was first broadcast, known for showing the complex picture of 17th Century politics in England, it looked at Charles II personal relationships and its fabulous costumes and cinematography. But when the show made it to the US a whole hour was edited out.
After Charles II: The Power and The Passion, Wright made his feature film debut with an adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. Adapting Pride and Prejudice would be a challenge for any director because of the love readers have for the novel and being the version to come out 10 years after the highly successful Colin Firth led TV adaptation for the BBC. Wright and screenwriter Deborah Moggach took a more grounded, earthy approach, showing the Bennett family were not as well off as their peers, their home was in need of repairs, differing itself from the more grand visuals of the TV series. Wright and Moggach also decided to set their adaptation earlier, giving the film another visual distinction through its costumes. Wright was able to work with a solid £22 Million Budget ($28 Million) and started his working relationship with Keira Knightley, composer Dario Marianelli and Working Title Films. Pride and Prejudice was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Actress for Knightley and seven BAFTAs, including Most Promising Newcomer win for Wright. Wright personally won the British Director of the Year Award from the London Film Critics’ Circle and Best New Filmmaker prize from the Boston Society of Film Critics and was named in 2006 as one of 10 Directors to Watch by Variety.
Wright’s follow up movie was an adaptation of the Ian McEwan novel Atonement in 2007 and arguably Wright’s best movie. McEwan’s novels are very dense affairs and adaptations of his work have been mixed; Atonement is the most successful. Atonement starts in 1935 and ends in the 1990s telling how a misunderstanding by a young girl leads to destroying the lives of her family and one man particularly. Atonement had a big name cast, Knightley, James McAvoy, Vanessa Redgrave, a pre-fame Benedict Cumberbatch and a 13-year-old Saorise Ronan who was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Atonement was nominated for seven Academy Awards, winning the award for Best Original Score and fourteen BAFTAs, including a win for Best Film. It also opened the 64th Venice International Film Festival which made Wright the youngest director to open the prestigious festival.
Atonement had fantastic performances, particularly from Knightley, McAvoy and Ronan and Christopher Hampton’s script was able to bring together the various storylines. But it was the cinematography by Seamus McGarvey, showing off Wright’s signature style that was the movie’s winning feature, having a bright lit look when in the English countryside to a more muted look when the movie enters into the Second World War. The remarkable sequence was the five minute long Dunkirk sequence, a fantastically choreographed sequence, an unbroken shot as the British army prepare to retreat from the beach.
After Atonement, Wright produced his first and so far only American set movie, The Soloist starred Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx. Downey and Foxx both gave excellent performances as Steve Lopez, an Los Angeles Times reporter and Nathaniel Ayers, a homeless man with schizophrenia and former music prodigy. But The Soloist was a box office disappointment, making $38 Million from its $60 Million budget and received mixed reviews. The Soloist is a decent drama, but it was clearly an Oscar-bait movie and was Wright’s less visually inventive movie.
Wright was able to bounce back from the disappointment of The Soloist with a complete genre change in the cult actioneer Hanna. Hanna was based on a Blacklisted script by Seth Lochhead and rewritten by Spooks writer David Farr and directors Danny Boyle and Alfonso Cuaron were linked to the movie before Wright was hired. Wright reunited with Saoirse Ronan and made an entertaining action movie about a 16-year-old girl raised in the Arctic Circle by her CIA-father to be the perfect assassin and goes out into the world she does not know to kill her father’s former handler. But when Hanna is out in the real world she ends up travelling with a family from North Africa to Europe.
Hanna has similarities to The Bourne Identity, Alias and even Kick-Ass, but Wright himself has stated that he was influenced by the surrealist work of David Lynch and made it as a dark modern fairy tale, seeing it as a story about a young girl forced out from her rustic, isolated life to face a wicked witch. Yet it still works as an entertaining action thriller, having fantastic fight scenes including an excellent continuous shot, showing an action movie does not need lots of shaky-cam and quick cuts to make a fight scene thrilling. Wright also hired The Chemical Brothers to make a fantastic electronic dance score which was both a great feat of music and a complete departure from Wright’s usual classical approach.
After Hanna, Wright returned to making the costume drama genre by adapting the Leo Tolstoy novel Anna Karenina. The acclaimed playwright Sir Tom Stoppard adapted the novel and Wright worked with an ensemble cast which included Keira Knightley, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Jude Law, Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander in her first English-language role and his Mr. Darcy Matthew Macfadyen. Anna Karenina earned decent reviews, gaining a 63% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but audiences were more mixed towards the movie, having a 6.6 out of 10 on IMDB. Even we at Entertainment Fuse were divided towards the movie.
Anna Karenina was highly praised for its costumes, wining the Academy Award and the BAFTA awards for Best Costume Design. It was also an artistically ambitious movie with Wright following Laurence Olivier’s approach to his 1944 version of Henry V, setting the movie as a theatrical production and slowly becomes more like a traditional film as it progresses. One of the stand out sequences is the dancing scene between Knightley and Taylor-Johnson where the world slows down around them and the camera follows them. A brilliant moment of visual storytelling, expressing everything it needs to without a word of dialogue.
In 2013 Wright made his theater debut with a production of Trelawny of the Wells at the Donmar Warehouse in London. Trewlawny of the Wells was a comedy play written by Arthur Wing Pinero in 1898 about the theater world and playwright Patrick Marber altered the script for 21st Century tastes. The cast included Daniel Mays (Made in Dagenham), Ron Cook (Hot Fuzz) and Amy Morgan (Mr Selfridge) and the play earned mostly positive reviews from the British newspapers and acting press.
Wright has made his first big budget movie, Pan, a $150 Million fantasy prequel to Peter Pan. Pan is the second movie based on a Blacklisted script and Wright recruited a big name cast, having the likes of Hugh Jackman, Garrett Hedlund (Tron: Legacy) and Rooney Mara, with newcomer Levi Miller as Peter. But Pan was marred with controversy by casting a Caucasian actress for a role normally meant for Native American actors and reviews have mostly been mixed to poor. Pan currently has an 23% rating on Rotten Tomatoes at the time of this writing. But Wright’s visuals have been praised, mainly for use of bright colors. But it has been the story and pacing that many reviewers claim are Pan‘s big weaknesses.
Pan is not the first time Wright has been linked to a big project. He has expressed an interest to direct a Bond movie and because of his work on Hanna has become a top choice by fans to handle the famous series. He was also linked to Fifty Shades of Grey back in 2013, being seen as a classy filmmaker to bring the popular novel to big screen, but was unable to take the gig because of his busy schedule. Many would say he dodged a bullet.
As well as working in film and theater Wright has made commercials. He has made commercials with Keira Knightley for Chanel with song covers by Joss Stone which you can watch here and here, as well as a Chanel Commercial with Brad Pitt. Wright also made a short film for the charity Women’s Aid about domestic violence, a hard hitting short with Knightley playing an actress who is trapped in an abusive relationship.
Wright is a highly talented director, his technical acumen is second-to-none, mastering how to craft a continuous shot. He is deserving of his growing reputation, showing he can handle costume dramas and action. It will be interesting to see what Wright does next, whether it’s another historical drama, an action movie, a Bond flick or another franchise or something completely unexpected. He would be a good fit for the Bond series or tackling a new cinematic version of The His Dark Materials Trilogy.