‘Anna Karenina’ Begs Question: Why Are Many Movie Russians Played By Brits?

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"Anna Karenina," is the quintessential Russian story, written by a consummate Russian author. In Leo Tolstoy's tragic tale (the latest film version of which opened on Friday), aristocratic Anna falls in love with soldier Count Vronsky, much to the dismay of her husband.

But this movie version has very little in the way of actual Russians. Its main characters are all played by British actors. Keira Knightley plays Anna. English actors Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Jude Law play Vronsky and Karenin, then men vying for her affections.

That likely won't bother American audiences, who are used to British-accented actors playing "foreigners" from many countries.

Why hire Brits? In this case, the answer is easy: It's a British production. The film was shot almost entirely in England. Part of the filming was done at studios in and around London, but two prominent English locales serve as stand-ins for Russia.

The historic mansion known as Ham House, on the outskirts of London, is a beautiful old building with 400 years' worth of furnishings still in its collection. The Didcot Railway Centre houses old trains and equipment buildings dating back to 1932 (if you know the story of Anna Karenina, you know the trains' significance). Both are tourist attractions these days, open to the public.

But the movie brings up a larger question: Why do so many movies have British actors playing Russians (or Germans, or Middle Easterners)?

By now, it's a longstanding tradition. As the tvtropes.org website notes, this goes back a long time.

Half the cast of the venerable "Dr. Zhivago" film was British, including Julie Christie and Alec Guinness (Omar Sharif is Egyptian; still not Russian).

In "The Hunt for Red October," the actors start out speaking (badly accented) Russian but switch to English so the audience doesn't have to read subtitles for an entire movie. In the case of star Sean Connery, that's Scottish English, of course.

Jude Law, Rachel Weisz, Joseph Fiennes and Bob Hoskins play Russians in "Enemy at the Gates." Even the current James Bond himself, Daniel Craig, played a Russian in "Defiance."

Some British actors can legitimately play Russians: Helen Mirren is half Russian; she was born Ilyena Vasilievna Mironov.

Liam Neeson plays a Russian in "K19: The Widowmaker," although tvtropes notes that "Neeson wisely gives up and reverts to his Irish brogue about halfway through the movie."

If the movie has British characters tangling with Russians, the Russians are often played by actors from Sweden or Eastern Europe. Many Bond villains from the Cold War era are played by Germans.

Part of the British-as-Russian phenomenon could result from another longstanding tradition, the British actor as villain. Think of all those bad guys playing for the Empire in the "Star Wars" movies (with Obi-Wan Kenobi as the one exception).

It's a stereotype that has irritated British critics. "In the casting of big budget Hollywood movies the rule is clear: bad guys British, good guys anything but," complained Barry Norman in London's Daily Mail.

Some commenters go so far as to link the British villain phenomenon to lingering effects of the Revolutionary War.

There's the fact that a British accent is different enough to sound distinctly foreign yet easy for Americans to understand. Also, for much of the 20th century, there weren't many Russian actors around, what with the Cold War and all.

The trend these days is going in another direction: British actors playing Americans. And it's not just villains these days, either: British actors are playing some of America's biggest heroes. Right now, that includes Daniel Day-Lewis, the son of an English poet laureate, playing the title character in "Lincoln."

Aaron Johnson, Keira Knightley and Jude Law play Russians with British accents in the new "Anna Karenina," filmed in England. (Photo by Dave M. Benett/Getty Images)

"Anna Karenina" was partly filmed at Ham House, a Stuart-era residence on the banks of the Thames near London. (Photo by Britain on View/Visit Britain)

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