(This review originally appeared at Reel Film News on November 16, 2012.)
Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.
The story of a woman torn between her family, her extramarital love, and the societal pressures that destroy them all.
It’s a novel that has more film, television, and staged adaptations than you could possibly want to see. The film versions seem to pop up at least once a decade; most have been straightforward retellings, complete with grand set design, beautiful location shooting, and acclaimed performances by all. 2012’s Anna Karenina, as directed by Atonement director Joe Wright, is cut from a wholly different cloth, opting to dispense with grand vistas in favor of grandness on a smaller scale.
If only the fictional character Anna Karenina (played here by Keira Knightley) had been born about 100 years later, she could’ve avoided all this heartbreak. She could’ve even been a celebrity, with our current voyeuristic, mindless entertainment values being what they are. Look at the current military scandal that’s rocking the nation – it’s almost straight out of Tolstoy’s novel! Alas, she was born into near turn-of-the-century Russia, where social mores still held sway and life was meant to be lived in a certain order, conflicting with the kind of life that Anna wanted for herself. As the wife of Alexei Karenin (Jude Law), a government official, she is expected to behave in a fashion befitting her station in life. However, when she meets Alexei Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a young Army officer, his pursuit of her ignites a passion between them that starts her into a downward spiral of shame and paranoia.
At the heart of it, that’s what this new version of Anna Karenina is fixed upon; the love story has taken center stage, with the other subplots being treated merely as speedbumps. This is troublesome, yet fitting for the style in with which Wright has paced his Anna Karenina. The film moves at such a quick clip that it has turned into a vibrant, living organism that breathes, gallops, and dances across our eyeballs for a stirring 130 minutes; its pacing leaves us breathless and often barely able to follow along with the lead story. Wright has dared to make something different, which I can most certainly appreciate. However, the sacrifice of characters who aren’t Anna, Vronsky, or Karenin leaves one wondering just a little bit about why they were included in the first place; maybe these secondary characters and their plots provide a bit of breathing room in between the frenetic chapters that form Anna’s tale.
The film’s physical world is where a lot of the magic lies in Wright’s Anna Karenina. It’s a very intricately choreographed and staged world, inhabiting the space of a large theater, complete with stage, footlights, flylofts, orchestra pit, backstage areas, balconies, and backdrops. With the hustle and bustle of a stage production on both sides of the proscenium arch, Wright and director of photography Seamus McGarvey (replacing the injured Philippe Rousselot) weave the camera in and out in a dance with the lens’ subjects. We are treated to long takes where scenery is changed around the camera movement and where actors disappear, only to suddenly reappear without a single edit. There’s a certain joyful madness about Anna Karenina, as if Wright were celebrating his self-imposed space limitations and playing an insane game where he must use every last bit of space of the theater.
It’s a game certainly worth one’s attention, if only to admire the constant choreography between set and actor; I thought of it as a Broadway musical (minus the singing and kick-line showstoppers), with the music underpinning almost every minute of onscreen action, timed perfectly to everyone’s movements. The eye-filling high-wire act that Wright has attempted – the constant theater motif, the abandonment of large-scale cinema, the minimalist approach to the sets, and the claustrophobia-inducing air of it all – does succeed, thanks in no small part to his art department and his performers. Knightley gives the linchpin performance here, as she goes from the in-control and stable bureaucrat’s socialite wife to a woman driven insane by her bad choices. Her eyes go from being a quality of beauty to betraying her deranged delusions of infidelity and insecurity. She gives her entire being to her portrayal of Anna, and she will undoubtedly receive lots of accolades and acclaim. Providing a sharp balance to her characterization are Jude Law as her long-suffering husband, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as her new romantic desire; both provide everything that she could possibly want, but hubris always has a way of mucking up the works.
Anna Karenina is one of those rare movies for me, where my appreciation for it grows the more I think about it. On first glance, it’s easy to maybe chalk it up to a director’s attempt at shedding expectations – Atonement was a very large period piece with sweeping visuals and grand design, with “ACADEMY AWARD WINNER HERE!” all but written on the movie poster. Instead, Joe Wright has gone and played with models and miniatures, and he has proven to be just as effective a filmmaker. With your second thoughts, you’ll start thinking about the movement through the theater, the different places they represent by appearance and sound, and how believable Wright makes it all seem. And when the camera finally does make it to the outside, the metaphor for Anna’s insular, isolated world hits home and makes us realize that we are watching a truly peculiar work of art.