As a director, Joe Wright is nothing if not audacious. He was brave enough to tackle Ian McEwan’s romantic World War II epic Atonement and to put his own mark on Jane Austen’s classic Pride and Prejudice. The latter may seem simple enough until you realize Austenites (and women everywhere) consider the 1995 BBC version with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth to be definitive. And yet, truncated though it was, Wright’s grittier version had merit.
In his sumptuous new adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s great novel of love and infidelity in pre-revolutionary Russia, Wright tries something new, and it’s sublime. Eschewing a formal, traditional style, he frames Anna Karenina as a busy, highly choreographed stage play in which characters stalk the wings of the theater, moving with the grace of dancers as they spin on and off stage and in and out of love and desire.
But Wright doesn’t allow this structure to limit his imagination or his characters; they aren’t physically confined. They rush through crowded train stations or throw open a stage door to discover a snow-covered field — and then stride across it. Nor is the stage bound by the laws of physics: In one gorgeous scene, snow falls upon a man standing in the empty theater. All the visual daring makes for an intoxicating rush, especially if what you’ve been expecting is a simple costume drama.
By necessity, some of Tolstoy’s grand themes get lost or at least trampled in the translation, in particular his sharp contrast of agrarian life to that of city high society. But the core of the story — the doomed love affair between the married Anna (Keira Knightley) and Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) — remains intact and vital. The film’s early moments, which use meticulous, amusing choreography to highlight the broadly comic Oblonsky (a terrific Matthew Macfadyen, Wright’s Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice), are played as farce. But as the movie winds on, its tragic nature begins to reveal itself.
The film opens with a touch of foreshadowing: Oblonsky, Anna’s brother, has betrayed his wife Dolly (Kelly Macdonald), and she is broken-hearted. Anna leaves her young son and distinguished husband Karenin (Jude Law) and rushes to Dolly’s side to persuade her on the matter of forgiveness. But later, at a party, temptation is delivered unto Anna in the form of Vronsky, a handsome young military officer. He’s equally smitten and swiftly throws over the impressionable Kitty (Alicia Vikander) to pursue the married woman.
Anna and Vronsky dance, literally and figuratively, and soon scandalize all of Mother Russia. They are in love, but society won’t accept them, particularly because they’re making a fool of a respected man like Karenin. And if Anna leaves him, she’ll lose her son.
Tolstoy’s alter ego, the hard-working farmer Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), has his role cut short, but his earnest pursuit of the spurned Kitty sets up a pleasing contrast to Anna and Vronsky’s more physical desire. Knightley is not quite up to the task of conveying Anna’s eventual breakdown — the best she can do to express Anna’s roiling emotions is wrinkle her nose — but as the stern, bewildered Karenin, Law forces you to empathize with this reserved man’s pain. Wright’s film is visually stimulating to be sure, but he never loses sight of the raw human emotions that make Anna Karenina a classic.
Cast: Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Matthew Macfadyen, Kelly Macdonald, Domhnall Gleeson, Emily Watson.
Director: Joe Wright.
Screenwriter: Tom Stoppard. Based on the novel by Leo Tolstoy.
Producers: Tim Bevan, Paul Webster.
A Focus Features release. Running time: 130 minutes. Some sexuality, violence. Playing in Miami-Dade: Aventura, South Beach, Sunset; in Broward: Gateway; in Palm Beach: Palace.