Why Joe Wright Is Such an Epic Filmmaker

Seven career-defining scenes from the director of Darkest Hour

Focus Features 07.12.2017

In Darkest Hour, Joe Wright brings to life an extraordinary historical moment, when Winston Churchill (played by Academy Award nominee Gary Oldman) must decide whether to pursue a peace treaty with Germany or stand up to the growing Nazi threat. From a screenplay by The Theory of Everythings Anthony McCarten, Darkest Hour brings forth Wright’s remarkable talent for tracing the intimate trajectory of individual lives across the grand sweep of history.

As we celebrate our 15th anniversary, we are especially proud of Wright’s four films with Focus Features. Whether adapting great novels (Pride & Prejudice, Atonement, and Anna Karenina) or reinventing the action genre (Hanna), Wright brings verve and vitality to classic stories. With so many great scenes to choose from, we’re spotlighting seven that especially showcase the audacity of his cinematic talent and the humanity of his vision. Remembering these remarkable moments makes us all the more excited to see what magic Wright will bring to Darkest Hour when it arrives in theaters this November. 

Official trailer for Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour

Pride & Prejudice’s enchanting dance between Elizabeth and Darcy

In the second, more formal Netherfield Ball in Pride & Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet (Keira Knightley) and Mr. Darcy (Matthew Macfadyen) dance for the first time. The scene––gloriously presented with Sarah Greenwood’s production design and Jacqueline Durran’s gorgeous costumes––is captured by a single Steadicam shot that follows the couple’s dancing and razor-sharp repartee. What makes the scene epic is how Wright magically transforms the moment from a bustling society event to just the two of them waltzing. “For the first time, they’re left alone with the terrifying potential of what, together, they could be,”  Salon points out. 

Get Pride & Prejudice now on iTunes or at Amazon.

Matthew Macfadyen and Keira Knightley dance to the music of love in Pride & Prejudice

The misty dawn meeting of Darcy and Lizzie Pride & Prejudice.

Perhaps no moment from Pride & Prejudice is more seared into our cultural memory that the misty morning meeting between Lizzie and Darcy. Wright transformed the novel’s simple walk into an unforgettable widescreen romantic rendezvous where Darcy tremulously announces his love in the sun-kissed light of a beautiful sunrise. While Wright acknowledges a bit of luck with the weather in capturing this “magical moment,” the time of day was intentional and strategic: “The film is completely circular. You start and end with the sunrise.”

Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen find each other in Pride & Prejudice.

A five-and-a-half-minute epic shot of Dunkirk in Atonement

In bringing Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement to the screen, the filmmakers knew shooting Robbie Turner’s (James McAvoy) experience waiting for the British army to be evacuated from Dunkirk would be a massive—and costly—endeavor. Needing a thousand extras, horses, burnt-out buildings, and a Ferris wheel, Wright decided to shoot the scene as a five-and-half-minute shot that follows Robbie along the beach. After four attempts on a day that Wright would later claim to be "One of the best of my life," the crew accomplished the nearly impossible. "The sheer logistics of the shot are impressive,” notes Empire. “But it’s the emotion that makes this such an astonishing achievement.”

Get Atonement now on iTunes or at Amazon.

James McAvoy encounters the horrors of war in Atonement

The ballet subway fight in Hanna

In Hanna, Wright creates what the Goat Series claims “will go down as one of the greatest long-take fight scenes in history.” As Hanna’s father Erik Heller (Eric Bana) descends into a Berlin underground station, he suddenly encounters a small army of strange dark-suited men with violent intentions. With the help of amazing artists, from famed fight choreographer Jeff Imada to cinematographer Alwin H. Kuchler, Wright creates a fight scene that is at once heart-poundingly exciting and sublimely stylish––“an action scene that will make action fans all but weep,” says Birth.Movies.Death.

Get Hanna now on iTunes or at Amazon.

Eric Bana has all the right moves in Hanna.

Hanna’s daring escape from an underground prison 

In Hanna, Wright showcases his unique talent for mixing image, sound, and fury when the film’s title hero (Saoirse Ronan) escapes a high-security CIA prison situated under the Moroccan desert. Set in an actual wind tunnel used to test aircraft, the scene uses The Chemical Brothers’ propulsive electronic score to full effect. Working with editor Paul Tothill, Wright creates a high-octane action sequence that also emotionally embodies Hanna’s urgent desire to be free. For Smells Like Screen Spirit, “The editing and the visual bravado of the prison escape sequence alone is worth the admission price.”

Hanna sets herself free in Hanna.

Anna and Vronsky’s private dance in Anna Karenina

In Anna Karenina, Wright recreates Leo Tolstoy’s masterpiece about love as “a ballet with words.” Nowhere is that clearer than the sumptuous waltz where Anna (Keira Knightley) physically connects with Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) for the first time. Wright hired acclaimed choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui to design a vocabulary of movement that could express the characters’ colliding emotions. “Anna and Vronsky’s passion is at the heart of the waltz,” Cherkaoui explains. At the start of the opulent grand ball, Kitty (Alicia Vikander) has set her sights on Vronsky. But when Anna and Vronsky dance, nothing exists in the world but the music and their bodies spinning through space.  

Get Anna Karenina now on iTunes or at Amazon.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Keira Knightley make a connection in Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina’s galloping horse race set in a theater  

Turning the story inside out, Wright boldly staged Anna Karenina mostly inside a massive, well-worn theater to showcase the artificial spectacle of the Russian aristocracy. There was one scene that, as cinematographer Seamus McGarvey tells The Hollywood Reporter, “epitomized the whole theatrical conceit, and that was the races." Here, Anna has come to watch her beloved Vronsky race as her husband, Count Karenin (Jude Law), spies on her from above and realizes for the first time his wife’s passion for another. The emotions of this quiet afternoon affair seem to explode when real horses thunder across the stage in what Variety calls perhaps the film’s “most audacious feat.” 

Keira Knightley watches the races in Anna Karenina.

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