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While numerous filmmakers focus their stories on only male or only female protagonists (the former far outnumbering the latter), Joe Wright has deftly managed to hop between stories of both, while never shortchanging the female main characters of his films. Wright's female-centric stories often illustrate universal feelings through a perspective not often seen in stories revolving around men, and while there are similarities in the women's stories that tell us about what Wright gravitates to as a director, the differences, both small and large, make for unique and richly drawn characters.
Feelings of alienation, of being an outsider or otherwise not fitting in, is a running theme among the female lead characters in Wright's films. This is very explicit in Hanna, where the titular lead character is literally raised in isolation, taught to hunt and kill so that she can be prepared for when a secretive government agency comes after her, to the point that her first night in a room with electricity is a shocking and scary change. It is, however, present in varying degrees in three other Wright films as well. Pride & Prejudice offers a strong example of this, as Elizabeth Bennet continually feels out of step with the societal norms around her. Independent and loyal to her sisters above all else, Bennet finds herself set apart from the other women around her, particularly her mother, who primarily searches for a husband for her daughters. The theme of alienation is keenly felt with Briony Tallis in Atonement as well, where Briony's affection for literature, particularly writing it, sets her apart from her peers. While not as explicit as Hanna's isolation, Briony's inability to get the twins and Lola invested in her play is very telling, and what she perceives as the apparent fracture of her bond with Robbie drives much of her action in the early stages of the story.
This theme, however, is interestingly explored in Anna Karenina in reverse fashion; unlike Elizabeth, Briony, or Hanna, Anna begins the story feeling very much a part of society, both in St. Petersburg and in Moscow, and it is through the course of the film, as her relationship with Vronsky deepens, that her alienation becomes more stark and pronounced. In the process, rather than illustrating how growing up in a feeling of alienation affects a person's behaviour, as Atonement does with Briony, Wright illustrates how a sudden feeling of alienation affects a person's mental well-being, and how it can be downright harmful. In this way, a number of Wright's films focusing on female protagonists examine the negative impact alienation can have on a woman, with Elizabeth Bennet seemingly escaping such a fate by sheer force of will.
One of the fascinating aspects of Wright's female-centric movies is that his lead female characters don't all react to stress the same way. To look at the two times he's worked with Saoirse Ronan provides the perfect example; Briony's reaction to seeing Cecilia and Ronnie's interactions is to accuse Ronnie of raping Lola. Take, by comparison, Hanna's reaction to the discovery that the man who raised her was not her biological father, contrary to what she'd been told. Unlike Briony, Hanna proceeds to confront Erik with her newfound knowledge to try and get the truth out of him. The difference in how Briony and Hanna process these pieces of information tells us loads about the characters, and the stark difference in how they deal with it proves a certain depth of understanding that is not nearly as common as it should be.
Briony's reaction to stress, on the other hand, is similar to that of Anna’s. Both Briony and Anna respond to the perceived betrayal they encounter in similar fashion, by lobbing accusations to deflect from their own pain. A key difference, however, is their reasoning behind the accusations. Briony's accusation of rape levied against Robbie is one where she's clearly aware that it's not him, but Paul who is the culprit. Anna, on the other hand, sincerely believes Vronsky's cheating on her, as evidenced by her vision on the train prior to her suicide. Thus, while Briony seeks to actively hurt Robbie, Anna's accusation comes from a genuine place of pain and fear.
Another interesting note that distinguishes Wright’s lead female characters from each other is their wealth bracket. Elizabeth Bennet is notably not among the wealthy population of her time, in stark contrast to Briony Tallis, whose luxurious house and surrounding estate grounds are never commented on, but impossible to miss in the parts of Atonement that occur there. Hanna’s poverty is self-imposed by Erik as a means of staying off Wiegler’s radar, but it exists nonetheless, forcing Hanna to be self-sufficient by hunting their own food, among other things. While Elizabeth refuses to allow her wealth to define her, turning down Mr. Collins’ proposal despite the assurance of better financial prospects, the idea of wealth, or lack thereof, seems to not affect either Hanna or Briony’s decisions throughout Hanna or Atonement. Anna Karenina's titular Anna, however, may be the most opulent of the quartet, as the luxuriousness of the house she shares with Karenin, as well as her standing in both St. Petersburg and Moscow high society is a key aspect of her character, and the loss of both following her affair with Vronsky is a major part of her downfall.
There are other details, of course, that both bring the characters together as something they have in common, and set them apart as unique traits some of them possess. With the exception of Hanna, whose time period is never really specified, Wright's stories revolving around women have all tended to be period pieces, with Atonement's World War II setting being the most recent. Similarly, many of the characters' stories revolving around love may at first seem reductive, but the way each character reacts to love goes a long way towards giving each a distinct personality, whether it's finding love against all odds, or losing everything in the pursuit of love, or even feeling a sense of betrayal from what one thought was love. All in all, the rich array of well-characterized women make Wright's female-centric films always worth a watch.