Did we really need another Anna Karenina? Leo Tolstoy’s 1870s epic romance has been adapted for film and television a couple dozen times. Greta Garbo has played the title role. So has Vivien Leigh. And Sophie Marceau. And Jacqueline Bisset. It’s been made in Germany and Italy and Hungary and Argentina and India and the Philippines and, of course, Russia. There’s even an Arabic version.
Yet, director Joe Wright, reuniting with his Pride & Prejudice and Atonement leading lady Keira Knightley, has found a fresh take, shooting Tom Stoppard’s script with a metaphoric and highly stylized theatricality. (It’s an approach that requires some audience education, however, which is perhaps the strategy behind a making-of featurette released a few months back.)
Anna Karenina opens with Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen) getting a shave on a stage, a confusing setting at first for the uninitiated. In fact, the majority of the film takes place in this dilapidated Russian theater, where the aristocratic class is obsessed with all things French, their very existence a performance of high-society ideals and Western European affectations. And like Upstairs, Downstairs, location within this building has everything to do with class, with the stage and auditorium serving as the realm for the rich and backstage and the catwalks the domain of their servants.
Oblonsky is the catalyst for the central romance, as his dalliances with the nanny bring his sister Anna to Moscow to help convince his wife Dolly (Kelly Macdonald) to forgive him. When Anna arrives from St. Petersburg, she by chance meets handsome young officer Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and is immediately taken in, as the audience is, by his electric blue eyes and sexy ’stache. Never mind that she’s dutifully married to Karenin (Jude Law, giving the role a quiet dignity), a high-ranking government official whose professional reserve extends to their bedroom.
Try as she might, Anna can’t resist her persistent paramour, and the two embark on a fervid affair that incites a society scandal. Men may have their mistresses, but wives do not leave their husbands for their lovers. Knightley is characteristically exquisite—physically, yes, but also emotionally—subtly conveying a rising heat that can’t be expressed. The film may lose focus in the third act for those unfamiliar with where it’s headed, but Anna’s unraveling is moving in its hysteria.
Meanwhile, in a plotline that’s gotten less play in previous cinematic versions of the story, Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) courts Dolly’s sister Kitty (A Royal Affair’s Alicia Vikander), who also has eyes for Vronsky. Rejected, Levin returns to his country estate, where he labors in the fields next to his farmhands. His tale was slightly autobiographical for Tolstoy, and Levin lives a more authentic life than his city counterparts, so Wright films these scenes in the real world, away from the derelict stage upon which Anna’s tragedy plays out.
The movement among production designer Sarah Greenwood’s sets—Moscow and St. Petersburg, the city and country—is kinetic and fluid: A toy train morphs into a full-scale locomotive, the backstage door opens onto a winter wonderland, and stage walls fall away as characters move from one place (in space and in their lives) to another with the same rhythm and choreography that infused Wright’s last film, Hanna. An opera, a ball, an ice rink and a horse race all take place within the theater walls.
Having eschewed making another traditional period drama, Wright and his crew likewise shuck off historical accuracy. Costume designer Jacqueline Durran, for example, looked as much to 1950s French couture as 1870s Russian dress for inspiration when she designed Anna’s lavish gowns, with undergarments like birdcages (trapping and putting her on display) and tops suggestively in danger of falling off Knightley’s shoulders. And Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s choreography is authentic from the waist down, modern and theatrical from the waist up in the pivotal ball scene, a nearly dialogue-less sequence in which Anna and Vronsky fall for each other, the other dancers frozen in place until brought to life as the sultry couple floats by.
Wright’s concept is visually and intellectually stimulating once engaged, an esoteric exercise that explores the intersection of literature, theater and cinema—at once challenging and rapturous.
Director: Joe Wright
Writer: Tom Stoppard
Starring: Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Kelly Macdonald, Matthew Macfadyen, Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Alicia Vikander, Olivia Williams, Emily Watson
Release Date: Nov. 16, 2012