Directed by Joe Wright
Written by Tom Stoppard
Starring: Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Kelly Macdonald Universal Pictures
Rated R | 130 Minutes
Release Date: November 30, 2012
“Rummaging in our souls, we often dig up something that ought to have lain there unnoticed.” – Tolstoy
Baz Luhrmann meets Terrance Malick in this excruciatingly exquisite adaptation of Leo Tolstoy‘s 19th century novel, Anna Karenina.
Directed Joe Wright (Atonement, Pride and Prejudice), with a script by famed British playwright Tom Stoppard, the film details the tragedy of married aristocrat and socialite Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley) and her affair with the affluent Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson).
A charming, well-off bachelor, Vronsky pursues Anna, asking her to leave her husband Karenin (Jude Law), a high-ranking government official. Unhappy with the lack of love in her marriage, Anna flirts and dances with Vronsky in public, leaving her vulnerable to the scrutiny of her peers. A passionate affair ensues, and the private matters of Anna Karenina are soon put on stage before all of Russian high-society.
There have been more than fifteen feature films titled Anna Karenina, and that doesn’t even include the made-for-television versions. What makes Joe Wright’s adaptation different is the cinematic vocabulary used to bring Tolstoy’s classic novel to life. Wright’s rhythmic, dreamlike direction turns Anna Karenina into a stage play within the colossal theatre of Russian society.
There are brilliant moments of choreography, graceful and surreal sequences where characters dance and sway about, only to freeze in place – allowing time to stop for Karenina and Vronsky during their erotically charged dance. The result is enchanting – a film with beautiful costumes and extravagant production design (and sound design!) that mesmerizes the audience with theatrical whimsy while putting them through the emotional wringer.
Characters outside of Russian high-society are free from the restraints of the play-within-a-play device – allowing them to exit the stage and roam freely amongst the countryside. The warmhearted Konstantin Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) is one such character, who is forced to enter high-society and (dressed accordingly) propose marriage to Princess Kitty (Alicia Vikander) – who turns the country boy down in hopes of attracting Vronsky’s attention. Levin’s longing for Kitty’s affection sends him back to the country, threshing wheat and living off the land – free from the stage directions and pressures of the upper class.
Without Wright’s exciting approach to Stoppard’s inspired adaptation, Anna Karenina could have been yet another droll period piece propelled by brilliant costumes and the kind of stereotypical, melodramatic performances reserved for Masterpiece Theatre. By pulling back the curtain and telling Karenina’s story as a stage play, Wright brings a whole other level to the story and, in my opinion, elevates the source material to be more accessible to those who are less inclined to delve into dusty volumes of Russian literature.
Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Matthew Macfadyen, Kelly Macdonald, Domhnall Gleeson, and Alicia Vikander turn in fantastic performances, which almost makes up for the underwhelming involvement of Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Kick-Ass, Savages).
Though he is young and handsome, Taylor-Johnson’s Vronsky feels less like a real man and more like a young boy, unexperienced and unprepared for the world of adultery. While he exudes confidence – it isn’t real, as if Vronsky himself is merely an actor, pretending to be more than he really is. Still, there is chemistry between Taylor-Johnson and Knightley, who manages to inject Anna with quiet desperation – deprived of the passion and intimacy she so yearns for.
I’ll be the first to admit I’m not a big fan of these kinds of films – the stereotypical period piece where Keira Knightley whispers pretty-sounding things while wearing a multitude of exquisite ballroom dresses – but Anna Karenina won me over with gorgeous, elegant visuals and solid performances. If you’re a fan of Wright’s work, or just a sucker for Russian literature adapted by British playwrights and performed by British actors – Anna Karenina is a beautiful, albeit depressing amalgam of cinema and theatre.