I loved it. My review:
Joe Wright continues to be a most fascinating and exciting filmmaker. With Pride & Prejudice and Atonement he brought freshness and vitality to the period drama (which I adore but can so often be “stodgy”) both classical and new. With The Soloist he made a far more decent film than the premise suggested, even if it felt somewhat dispassionate. With Hanna he displayed surprising versatility with an action film come fable that was as visceral as it was beautiful. Wright’s control over both character and visuals, as well as the classic language of filmmaking continues to stun me. Anna Karenina, from the classic novel by Leo Tolstoy adapted by the great playwright Tom Stoppard, is a remarkable feast. Throwing literalism gleefully out the window, Anna Karenina embraces theatricality in a film that is brash, ambitious and constantly surprising.
Stoppard takes Tolstoy’s 864 page tome and cuts its to its core. The film is not an epic but rather barely over two hours. The characters and narrative machinations are stripped of excess and we focus on the love, the betrayals, and perhaps most importantly the societal impact and the shifting perceptions of others. Thanks to Stoppard’s sharp dialogue and text and the phenomenal portrayals of the actors, the characters come to life in a fully realized fashion despite the excision of much of the novel’s depth. We feel the full affect of the story; the romance, the weight of Anna’s decisions, the hurt and anger of Karenin, the unrequited pining of Levin. One does not have to be familiar with the novel to understand these characters or the society to which they belong. The film illustrates beautifully. Keira Knightley (Anna) and Joe Wright continue to collaborate brilliantly. As Knightley matures her performances become more elegant, more controlled, more powerful. She radiates her love and her desires with great passion and beauty; she is effortlessly stunning in each precise emotion. Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Vronsky) and Domhnall Gleeson (Levin) each play young lovers, one adventurous, cocky, and satisfied, the other forced to pine for their love while they work far away. They are two sides of a coin; although they never interact they represent the various positions of young men in this Russian society. Actors like Matthew Macfadyen, Olivia Williams, Kelly McDonald, and Michelle Dockery liven up the screen. And Jude Law, as the betrayed Karenin, brings surprising restraint and vulnerability. He is an actor that constantly defies expectations and his receding hairline and soft speech break the heart.
Anna Karenina is a cinematic ballet. Save for outdoor scenes away from the illustrious interiors of Russian society, the film takes place in and around an ornate theatre. We begin with an overture as curtains rise, set pieces fly, and actors rapidly change costume. This is a film that is fully choreographed with artful precision. Movement and dance take center stage as actors float from room to room. From our lovers Anna and Vronsky to each extra, the steps are flawless. Wright and his cinematographer Seams McGarvey have complete trust as shots linger and sweep with long takes. Certain sequences are almost like a human Rube Goldberg machine. Gone is the notion of the grand epic with sweeping vistas and a multitude of sets. Instead we are left with something more intimate and far more audacious. This is not a literal translation of the text but one that asks us to see things through a new window. There is, of course, the famous Shakespeare quote but instead let us bring this back to Russian high society. Everyone is watched, talked about, judged. In their own way, everyone is standing in the spotlight as society observes. Life is theatre, and this film, though theatrical, is fully cinematic.
As the theatricality and technique reveals itself we engage and emote in kind. Dario Marianelli’s score is masterful, romantic, and jaunty and sometimes even cleverly utilized on-screen. Sarah Greenwood, Katie Spencer, and Jacqueline Durran have designed and decorated sets and costumes that are complex and stunning. Each element of the film feels hand crafted and selected. This is a film of great art and precision. It moves, it floats, it sings. Yet it never loses sight of its characters or the complexities of its emotions. As it does in the novel, the ending hits hard. Model trains come and go throughout the theatre and create a bookended parallel of movement. It breaks the heart. Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina is indelible.