Directed by Joe Wright
Where & When: Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood, CA. November 24, 2012 7:05PM
"Anna Karenina", the nineteenth century Russian novel by Leo Tolstoy, has been adapted for the screen several times over the years. The latest is by Joe Wright who has teamed up with the highly honored playwright, Tom Stoppard to write the screenplay and Keira Knightley, previously working with the director on some of her best film roles in "Pride & Prejudice" and "Atonement", to play the title character. Together, they have created a daring new version that has this tale of passion, infidelity and tragedy told in a theatrical setting while incorporating sweeping cinematic flourishes to enhance and heighten the action. While the film certainly stands out from the previous interpretations as it's breathtakingly beautiful with some solid performances but this approach feels more like a gimmick as we see the characters glide backstage across one set on to another which proves to be a distraction that pulls you out of the story at times.
The plot basically remains the same but for those unfamiliar, Anna (Knightley) is the younger, aristocratic wife of Count Alexei Karenin (Jude Law), a government official in St. Petersberg. After her arrival at the train station in Moscow to visit her brother, Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen) is when she first locks eyes with the handsome military officer, Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Their attraction is immediate and intense but Anna desperately tries to resist her desires. Her brother's pregnant wife, Dolly (Kelly Macdonald) is distraught after discovering that he had an affair with their governess but Anna is able to comfort her, advising to remain with her husband.
Dolly's younger sister, Kitty (Alicia Vikander) has also come to visit with the hope that the eligible, Vronsky, who she has been casually seeing, will ask for her hand in marriage during the debutante ball. However, an acquaintance, Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) who is a modest landowner, surprises her by asking instead. Kitty rejects his offer but devastated as Vronsky spends the entire evening dancing with the married, Anna. Whispers had begun long before they actually consummated their affair but once it begins, the couple is passionately consumed with each other as the very thought of not being linked eternally is unbearable and unimaginable.
Although he had been suspicious but even after the truth is revealed, the remote Karenin is willing to look past her indiscretion but Anna is incapable and unwilling to give Vromsky up. Her husband, in turn, refuses to grant a divorce and threatens to take away their son but soon wants nothing more to do with her once she tells him that she is pregnant. Willing to sacrifice everything for true love, Anna soon learns that scandal is not tolerated in her rarefied, upper-class society. Unfairly, the consequences only apply to her gender, and she pays a heavy, tragic price for her social misstep.
With only five films under his belt, Mr. Wright has earned the reputation of an adventurous film maker with a bold visual style. He has shown to like the challenge of shaking the dust off of classic material, (as he did with his impressive take of Jane Austen's "Pride & Prejudice") and to deliver a fresh perspective while retaining the spirit of the novel. He has certainly worked his magic with "Anna Karenina" and while the idea is inventive and inspiring, the effect also drew attention away from allowing a true emotional connection to take hold. As we witness each set changing, it kept bringing to mind an opera, with the performers seeming to be on the verge of breaking out in an aria, which would be fine if that was the director's intent. As the film goes on, the backstage action lessens and we breakthrough to the actual outdoors during Levin's part of the story as he sadly tries to forget Kitty by building a farm on his estate.
Fortunately, the actors remain grounded despite the use of the stage as a backdrop. Ms Knightley seems fond of strapping herself in to a corset for period dramas as she has done on numerous occasions in many of the films she has made to date but it just doesn't always feel that she completely shakes her contemporary ticks. But the actress is a mesmerizing presence as she looks simply amazing in her gorgeous costumes (thanks to the great work by Jacqueline Durran) and perfectly conveys Anna's frenzied pursuit of a true love, no matter what she must sacrifice. Emotionally vacant but desperate to express his deep passion for his wife while needing to hang on to his last bit of dignity, Mr. Law expertly captures the anguish and frustration of a man at a complete loss. However, Mr. Taylor-Johnson's Vronsky is just a little too blonde and too much of a fop to be convincing as this irresistible catch.
Despite my criticism of a few of Mr. Wright's artistic choices, I actually found "Anna Karenina" to be a superbly rendered, enchanting and confident work. This may not be the definitive version of this classic but it is most certainly one of the most imaginative and ambitious to have ever been made.