Classic stories can be told and retold, but Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, considered by some the greatest novel ever written, has had more than its fair share of movie adaptations. Director Joe Wright distinguishes his particular version thanks to some jazzy showmanship, and an excellent script from award-winning playwright Tom Stoppard.
Distilling a book of more than a thousand pages into a 130-minute movie requires a particular skill set that few filmmakers possess, but Stoppard deftly introduces us to Anna (Keira Knightley), the wife of the politically powerful Karenin (Jude Law) as she gets a letter from her brother Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen) begging her to come visit him in Moscow in order to help him patch up his relationship with his wife Dolly (Kelly Macdonald), who has grown increasingly weary due to her husband’s affairs.
On the train there, she strikes up a conversation with Countess Vronsky (Olivia Williams), and the two are met at the station by Vronsky’s soldier son (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who immediately becomes drawn to Anna -- and her to him. So begins a star-crossed relationship that will forever alter the destiny of numerous people.
There are lots of narrative building blocks that need to be laid before this story can move, and the most intriguing aspect of the movie is that while Stoppard’s straightforward approach to the story provides a solid foundation, Wright dazzles us visually during the lengthy set-up of so many characters and relationships. The director seems to be filming the entire movie in a single theater space with his camera roving ceaselessly across the stage, down into the orchestra pit, and even high up into the rafters. The unexpected visual segues, and the unmoored camera recall Baz Luhrmann’s approach to spectacle in Moulin Rouge, and the rather bold creative choice pays off in spades. As elaborately constructed as the opening half hour of the film is, we still easily grasp the story that’s being framed without ever growing restless or overwhelmed.
Once all the players are established, and we get a ballroom party scene even more technically complex and emotionally rewarding than a similar scene in Wright’s first-rate feature-film debut, Pride and Prejudice, the director eases up on the theatricality and lets the actors carry the growing emotional weight of the material. Knightley is solid at the center of it all playing a woman who yearns for passion even as she sees what it will do to her family, Jude Law does superb work as the wronged husband who still loves his wife even as she humiliates him, Kelly Macdonald brings moral heft to the film with some quietly forceful words about consequences, and Macfadyen gets all of the funny lines and serves up numerous moments of welcome comic relief -- he’ll make you smile just with his jaunty walk.
While these unconventional visuals will draw ire from purists, it’s hard to deny that Wright sticks to it for just the right amount of time for the process to serve his purpose. Once he’s set up all the pieces, the story plays out in handsome period detail. Those who want a top-notch Masterpiece Theater-like production of this classic will be enthralled by the back half of the movie, where the fatalistic certainty of Anna’s comeuppance is a guarantee even while we wonder about its fairness.
It’s hard to argue that tackling this story again was necessary, and this version can’t be called definitive or revelatory. However, Wright has done an admirable job of investing this tale that’s more than a century old with a modern sensibility that augments rather than sacrifices the original setting. He’s made a movie that’s easy to admire and respect. leave a comment --Perry Seibert