Keira Knightley and director Joe Wright – the classiest of duos with the power to turn beloved novels into lushly cinematic period pieces without a hint of staleness. They breathed fresh life into 2005‘s Pride & Prejudice, a surprisingly appealing adaptation that remains one of my favorite films, and brought vibrant sensuality to the tragic romance of Atonement in 2007, based on Ian McEwan’s famously “un-filmable” novel.
Now they’re together again for another seemingly daunting task – bringing Anna Karenina from Leo Tolstoy’s pages to the screen in a way that’s never been done before. With countless film adaptations (including Greta Garbo and Vivien Leigh versions) that have already been produced, a unique take on the subject matter seems all but impossible. But never underestimate the power of Joe Wright’s imagination.
The film, which boasts a screenplay written by Tom Stoppard, succeeds in its originality by leaps and bounds. Mainly because of the way it’s staged and stylized. Wright sets the majority of the action in an old theater on an actual stage. The idea came to him after reading that Russian society at that time lived their lives as if on a stage. It makes sense on a deeper level too – many of the characters are trying to be something they’re not, they are play-acting in a sense.
To clarify, the movie is not a one-dimensional stage play – the stage is a versatile set piece. It alternately serves as a ballroom, a restaurant, a horse racing track, an office, a bedroom and more. Many of the scene changes happen while the camera is rolling – no cut-aways or fade-to-blacks. It’s a truly amazing feat in precise choreography and careful editing. One minute the characters are walking through an office, the next those desks have been converted to tables and they’re sitting a restaurant. It’s jarring to be sure – I have never seen anything like it. And admittedly, for the first couple of scenes I was utterly confused. But the style eventually eases into itself and becomes easier to digest, once you know what to expect. And there are scenes that take place in real locations, too – a nice balance.
Knightley is, of course, the titular character – a wealthy woman living in the upper echelons of St. Petersburg society in the 1870s. She’s the wife of a well-respected government official, and the loving mother to a young son. But once she meets the beguiling Count Vronsky, that dutiful life she’s been cultivating since she was 18 begins to crack like thin ice on a frozen Russian lake. It’s love – or lust – at first site for the two and it isn’t long before their furtive glances turn into a full-blown affair. Anna’s downfall comes not so much because of her affair as it does because of inability to hide her true feelings. She, perhaps naively, believes that if she tells the truth, love will prevail. But in a society based on strict social rules (especially in regards to a woman who strays), a happy ending is not to be.
Knightley does a deft job at making you simultaneously sympathize with Anna’s plight and also dislike her for her selfishness. She’s not supposed to be an entirely likable character, but anyone who’s been in love is surely to understand that it sometimes makes you do crazy things. You do feel sorry for her husband, Karenin (played by Jude Law, tossing all vanity to the wind in an understated performance). While dull, he is not a bad man by any means. The affair hurts him deeply and yet he still tries to give Anna another chance. Vronsky, as played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson (with a poor blonde dye-job and unfortunate mustache) is a little harder to get a read on. I was never entirely sure of his intentions – and never quite believed he was as committed to Anna as he claimed. Never having read the book, I’m still not sure if that’s how his character was supposed to be or if Johnson’s portrayal just failed to connect with me.
Running parallel to Anna’s tragic story is a hopeful one. It revolves around Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), the best friend of Anna’s brother Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen, who previously played Mr. Darcy in Wright’s Pride & Prejudice). He’s a sensitive landowner, more content with hard labor than society life. He’s in love with Kitty (Alicia Vikander, one to watch), the young sister of Oblonsky’s wife. But at first, she rejects his marriage proposal, as she is infatuated with Vronsky. When she realizes Vronsky only has eyes of Anna, she is heartbroken. Levin and Kitty eventually reunite with a much happier outcome.
In addition to the staging, there are other aspects of the film that make it pop in unexpected ways. The costumes combined different styles in order to tell their own stories. As Anna begins her affair, her dresses become sexier, evoking lingerie, whether it’s with an off-the-shoulder look or a peek of lace. According to Knightley, one of the dresses was even made of bedsheets! Towards the end where Anna finds herself increasingly more trapped, she dons a severe veil in front of her face and at one point is shown wearing her corset and the skeleton of her hoop skirt – a literal cage to which she is confined.
While the many elements of Anna Karenina made it rich and layered, it also made it hard to become truly emotionally invested. The staging made for an incredibly unique viewing experience, but it was also distracting at times. My connection to the characters was dulled in comparison to the way I felt watching Pride & Prejudice and Atonement. I fear that Anna Karenina’s busyness might alienate some viewers and critics. But the one thing I can always say about Wright’s films is that you feel like you’ve entered a different world. The style is completely engrossing – you’re transported. This film almost felt like a musical, without the singing.
I was highly anticipating this film and on the whole it did not disappoint. I’m a fan of Wright’s vision and of Knightley’s acting and choices (although I’m aware I may be in the minority on that one), and I’ll continue follow their work together as well as separately. If you can embrace this ambitious film’s non-conformist style, I can guarantee you won’t want to throw yourself under a train when it’s over. In fact, you might want to take the ride all over again.
Set in late-19th-century Russia high-society, the aristocrat Anna Karenina enters into a life-changing affair with the affluent Count Vronsky.