Salt & pepper, peanut butter & jelly, Keira Knightly & period pieces. These pairings go together as if they were designed to be united. I must admit I’m a bit biased in Keira’s favor when it comes to these types of costume dramas. She has a timelessness that seems to fit theses epics like hand in glove. Alright enough with the similes. Anna Karenina is an adaptation of the 1877 Leo Tolstoy classic, a tour de force of Russian literature. It’s a book of enduring popularity, beloved the world over. Having been dramatized many many times, most famously in a 1935 version starring Greta Garbo and Fredric March, the question must be asked. How to make the text appear fresh and new for a modern audience?
Joe Wright has a singular vision. The English director has made the fascinating decision to lens the film in its virtual entirety on a single soundstage in an old abandoned theater. You might think this would be severely limiting, but surprisingly this is far from the case. The achievement is a set designer’s dream. The colors, costumes and cinematography complement a production that is so deliberately lavish in its presentation, I stopped breathing at moments it was so impressive. Italian composer Dario Marianelli composed the score, and it’s suitably lush romanticism complements the gorgeous visuals. I dare say, there is a carefully studied artistic expression here that I have rarely seen since Black Narcissus or The Red Shoes. High praise that I do not bestow lightly.
This is director Joe Wright’s third collaboration with leading lady Keira Knightly following Pride & Prejudice (2005) and Atonement (2007). By now the two clearly have a simpatico relationship that benefits the other. He utilizes her to full effect taking advantage of her strengths in the title role. She has a quality that suits any age, perfectly conveying the emotional depth the part requires. She isn’t the most likeable heroine. In fact I didn’t sympathize with Anna much. Given the hypocrisy on display, I think I was supposed to. However she is mesmerizing. The idea to cast Jude Law as Alexei Karenin, her stodgy husband, is an inspired choice. Normally Jude Law would be too young and handsome to depict a man 20 years her senior, but he sports a tremendous moustache and beard to hide his countenance. I quite enjoyed his portrayal as he comes across as rather sympathetic and not as stuffy as Karenin is often portrayed. He actually seems a pretty forgiving chap the way he puts up with her infidelity. Aaron Taylor-Johnson plays the dashing Count Vronsky. There is a slight narcissism in his performance. His posturing suggests he just might be as enamored with himself as he is with Anna. The youthful actor is virtually unrecognizable in blonde hair and blue contacts as the affluent rogue who sweeps her off her feet. It wasn’t until after seeing the picture that I googled his (new) name and realized this was in fact the same star of KickAss and Savages.
Anna Karenina is a cinematic feast. Director Joe Wright’s re-envisioning of the cherished novel treats the material with the reverence it deserves, but represents the production in a hyper-realized theatrical treatment that beautifully befits the story. Wright does a masterful job at condensing Tolstoy’s 800 page monolith into a manageable 2 hour feature. He expertly juggles a large cast of characters giving each the time they’re due without taking away from the central plot at hand. I was completely wrapped up in Anna’s story. And the way he renders the narrative, is genius. It is a sumptuous sight to behold that embraces the super-stylized construction of a play. Office workers stamp papers in staccato unison to the music like percussion, and then uniformly stand and sit in succession. When Count Vronsky and Anna first waltz on the dance floor of an elegant ballroom, the resulting movement is a meticulously choreographed ballet. The dancing couples remain frozen then move when Anna and Vronsky pass by them. Its conceptual style may not enrapture some, but the cinephile in me was entranced. I enjoyed every shrouded whisper, every conspicuous glare, and every angry declaration. Anna Karenina is a celebration of the medium. It is the very reason why one escapes into the fantasy of a movie and out of the reality of everyday life.