Anna Karenina has always been known to most as that book on their shelf that always managed to go unread. It looks great sitting in your collection with its intimidating size and leather-bound spine, but Tolstoy’s legendary thickness of language prevents most from experiencing this classic Russian story of love, sacrifice, selfishness, and society.
Joe Wright’s latest interpretation of the oft-retold story proves to not only be accessible, but a genuinely stunning experiment. Before we go any further, let’s get this out of the way right off the bat. This rendition of Anna Karenina has been retooled, remixed, and rejuvenated to enrapture modern audiences. It’s not your standard stuffy period piece; it whizzes and winds through its theatrical veneer in order to maintain momentum, and maintain it does.
The film effortlessly glides from set-piece to set-piece, literally not even taking the time to allow the actors an off-camera costume change. It’s all done for the sake of metaphor of course; the on-stage nature of this production only serves to highlight the societal voyeurism that one must expect from Russia circa 1876. This vehicle allows the film to sweep briskly from one scene to the next in a non-traditional fashion without so much as an establishing shot to indicate a change in setting.
The story follows Anna Karenina (Kiera Knightly), a young girl who has never felt the thrill of passionate love until the mysterious Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) follows her to every event that she attends in an attempt to seduce her. The twist comes at the fact that she is currently enjoying the high-society perks of being married to an aristocrat, Alexei Karenin (Jude Law).
The tone of the film never wallows in the despair of high society. It instead chooses to buzz electrically among the key players of the film, offering a foil of sorts to the societal wreck that Anna and company present in the form of supporting characters like Oblonsky, who choose simplicity over the complicated manner of the aristocratic life.
It is here that the film manages to find a balance, and when the joyous sound of its convention dies down to a whisper, a further equilibrium is reached by allowing poignant moments to linger, thereby crashing a train into the preconceived curtain of theatricality and reminding us that the charges at stake in this society are both very real and very dangerous.
The overall production design combined with the costumes, the cinematography, and the art direction wrap Anna Karenina into a surefire front-runner to Oscar glory. The story carries enough sharply cornered drama to keep the attention of an audience, but viewers that are less inclined to pay attention to the romantical whims of an utterly confused Russian socialite can rest assured that there will always be something gorgeous to catch their attention.
The only potentially distracting aspect of the film was its tendency to forsake any hint of its Russian ancestry, save for Russian words painted on various set-pieces. I never quite got used to hearing the name “Alexei Karenin” with a slightly posh English accent, and the sound of a Parisian accordion only brings back further memory of Moulin Rouge, as if Wright’s translation of the Russian tale wasn’t quite Luhrmannian enough.
At the moment, the harshest criticism facing Anna Karenina seems to be that it has been done before, and in the opinion of many critics, even better by the likes of Greta Garbo and Vivien Leigh. This writer in particular has not had the pleasure of comparison, but given that a critique of the film as it stands in itself seems to be the point of review in the first place, it would seem to be an exercise in film-dropping to simply brush off this experimental gem as an act of overblown modern buffoonery.
This rebirth of Anna Karenina proves to be a freshly reinvigorated incarnation, one that is both accessible to modern audiences and doesn’t feel pressured to be overbearingly self-serious. The films spins the audiences into a world that is delightful, visually stunning, and hopelessly crushing all at the same time.
If that’s not a successful portrayal of love, then I don’t know what is.
Rated: R (for some sexuality and violence)
Anna Karenina opens in limited release on November 16, 2012.