Film Review: Anna Karenina

Joe Wright's frenetic and daringly stagy adaptation unleashes the passions of Tolstoy's novel with a delicious abandon.

All the world’s a stage in this highly self-aware yet free-flowing take on Tolstoy’s great novel of doomed romance and the thorny collision of ideals with the world of real humans. Joe Wright’s exciting take on the story will certainly divide audiences, but for those who go along for the ride, they’ll thrill at how it blows their hair back. Instead of moving from one stately mansion to the next, Wright sets most of his scenes inside the same grand but vaguely decrepit theatre, with obvious backdrops and stage props, adding music and elaborate choreography to further stylize the action. It can be read as a statement on the highly artificial world that the Russian aristocracy had entrapped itself in, circa 1874, or a device heightening the novel’s already potent melodrama.

As most adaptations do, Tom Stoppard’s stripped-down screenplay (his first in over ten years) puts the emphasis on the half of the story with the most naked passions. Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley, playing the high-strung racing horse again to great effect) is happily married to dull but good-natured government official Alexei Karenin (Jude Law). They have a son and are at the center of glittering St. Petersburg society (Moscow being so…provincial). Anna seems to float outside the world of petty jealousies and intrigues, until the day love, in the form of devilishly rakish cavalry officer Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, from Savages) thwaps her between the eyes. Unable to do the calculus of how much she will lose if she is discovered, Anna throws herself into an affair with Vronsky. Ironically, when the film opens, Anna is counseling her sister-in-law Dolly (Kelly Macdonald) to forgive her brother Oblonsky’s (Matthew Macfadyen) cheating ways.

Running on parallel tracks is the more ruminative story, about Oblonsky’s dear friend Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), a straight-laced and highly moral landowner who is looking less for a wife than a true soul mate. Stoppard interleaves enough of Levin’s romantic ponderings and discussions with the earthier Oblonsky to fuel a hint of an internal debate in the film about whose relationship seems the more honest and true. Alexi is made out a classically clueless cuckold, but there is a sweetness to his impossibly stiff-necked persona when he defends Anna (at a time when all of St. Petersburg has espied her philandering) by saying, “My wife is beyond reproach. She is, after all, my wife.” The peace in Oblonsky and Dolly’s marriage is based on her ignoring what she can. And the love that Levin searches for doesn’t seem attainable among mortals.

Anna Karenina doesn’t take its philosophizing sitting down, though. Stoppard, long used to marrying weighty topics with lower humor, of necessity cleaves off great slabs of plot while still delivering the singing, stomping energy of Tolstoy’s galloping prose. Wright directs with a crackling energy, whipping his performers into something like a circus routine, complete with pancake-makeup musicians wandering through scenes and magical-realist flourishes (a room of bureaucrats stamp forms in artificially mechanistic unison, a man walks through a theatre door and into a snow-covered country field many miles away). Giving the proceedings more of a vaudeville stamp is the marvelous Macfadyen, who invests his loony performance with all the mustache-twinkling delight of Kevin Kline in his clownish prime.

Knightley has a more difficult time with the starring role. Although she throws herself into Anna with her characteristic enthusiasm, all aquiver with desire and rancid with self-loathing, there are times in the film’s final stretches when she can’t deliver the required sensation of a woman literally going mad because of love. Ultimately it’s a worthy performance that goes a long way toward anchoring the film’s many divergent stories and characters. Anna’s single-minded fury is of a piece with Wright’s relentlessly impassioned (doors flung wide and hearts and minds bared) and gorgeous vision (those baroque dresses, sun-splashed fields and snowy nights). Their combined passions crack the Faberge sheen of the period film. A triumph.