Costume drama fans and Russian literature aficionados rejoice: your holiday movie of the year has arrived.
Director Joe Wright’s new adaptation of Anna Karenina is a triumph, if for no other reason than his dizzying camera work and bold art direction, as well as a powerhouse performance by Keira Knightley, inject new vigor and energy into this oft-retold romantic classic.
In case you’re unfamiliar with the story, Anna Karenina (Knightley) is the pretty wife of Karenin (Jude Law), a Russian government minister revered in the aristocratic circles of St. Petersburg for his devoted and selfless service to Russia. Anna married Karenin at age 18 and bore him a son, but she is only just content with her life and esteemed position in her society. She’s far more in love with her child than she ever was with her husband, but his kindness and gentility make her life comfortable.
That life is turned upside down during a trip to Moscow to help smoothe over hurt feelings after her brother Count Oblonsky’s (Matthew Macfadyen) infidelity to his wife Dolly (Kelly Macdonald) is uncovered. On the train to Moscow, Anna meets the dashing cavalry officer Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Savages), and the two are immediately drawn to each other. Vronsky has a reputation as a playboy, but he’s entranced and enraptured by Anna, who he pursues doggedly despite her reluctant rebuttals.
Meanwhile, in a parallel story that serves as counter-point to Anna and Vronsky’s illicit connection, Oblonsky’s childhood friend Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), a provincial land owner with egalitarian beliefs about working the land side by side with his serfs, shyly courts the debutante Kitty (Alicia Vikander), who unfortunately is enamored of Count Vronsky at the moment he chooses to propose. Though heartbroken and bitter at first at Kitty’s preference, Levin’s devotion eventually prevails and he returns, hopeful of winning her affections.
One love story ends well, the other ends badly, and you can probably guess which is which, but part of the enduring power of Leo Tolstoy’s masterpiece is that he avoids outright preference or condemnation for any of his characters or their choices. The screenplay for this latest adaptation of Tolstoy’s work, written by Tom Stoppard (Shakespeare in Love, Empire of the Sun), maintains the original author’s stance and avoidance of moral finger-pointing. The only absolutes in the world the film depicts — the world of 19th Century Imperial Russia, with its aristocratic circles filled with artifice and hypocrisy — are that judgement by one’s peers is unavoidable, and scandal, once created, is inescapable. All the other results — who gets punished and who is rewarded, who finds love and who gains only misery — are as inconsistent as you might expect them to be in our own modern world. Thus, the story itself remains compelling and timeless.
Where the film takes considerable risk is the manner in which director Joe Wright (Pride & Prejudice, Atonement) presents the story. Wright maintains the novel’s original setting, but he amps up the sense of constricting artifice in that setting’s aristocratic circles by having much of the plot’s main events take place on an actual theater stage. Characters in full, resplendent period costumes go through scenes both in front of the curtain and behind, while others wait in the wings or look down from the rafters. Walls shift, backdrops rise, fall, or sometimes even explode outward, as when the action follows Levin away from the artificial confines of the wealthy and out into the country, where people live tied and grounded by the land. All of that movement in terms of settings is dizzying and distracting at first, but once you become accustomed to when and where to expect the shifts, they all provide an undeniable energy and vitality to the action taking place in and around them. How distracting it all is will depend on your personal taste, but there’s no denying that it’s a bold artistic approach, and you have to appreciate that kind of ambition.
What’s also undeniable is the talent on display in the film’s lead actors. This is the third collaboration between Wright and Knightley, and the affinity the director has for bringing out the best in the young actress is as clear as its ever been. Knightley’s Anna is at various times enraptured, conflicted, defiant, and desperate, but she is always convincing and sympathetic. Perhaps even more impressive here is Jude Law, who successfully makes the disappointment and barely-contained indignation Karenin feels as the cuckolded husband palpable behind the man’s reserved and dignified exterior.
If there is a weak link among the principals, it’s Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who’s good but not great in the role of Vronsky. He is almost too pretty and boyish to pull off being a dashing, charismatic soldier capable of overcoming a married woman’s virtue and better judgement, and though their love scenes are choreographed and shot with passion and sensuality, the actual chemistry between Johnson and Knightley isn’t always what it should be to make everything credible. In a story like this, where the power of the passion is paramount, that absence of connection can’t be ignored, no matter how skillful the acting or direction.
All in all, the efforts of cast and crew to create a unique vision of this classic story yield a result that’s engaging and enjoyable, if not perfect. It’s going to generate lots of Oscar buzz for Knightley and perhaps for Wright when the time comes, and the accolades will be well deserved.
Score: 4 out of 5
Starring Keira Knightly, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Kelly Macdonald, Matthew Macfadyen, Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Alicia Vikander, with Olivia Williams and Emily Watson. Directed by Joe Wright.
Running Time: 129 minutes
Rated R for some sexuality and violence.