Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” is a tale of love, lust, and societal constraints.
Joe Wright’s “Anna Karenina” is also very much about style, as the director takes the classic tale and uses it as a launching pad for a demonstration of filmmaking showmanship. It’s a choice that’s bound to draw mixed reactions, but I for one found it intriguing, and as a result, the movie wound up holding my attention far better than any staid, traditional period piece adaptation would have.
“Anna Karenina” is set in the latter half of the nineteenth century, in Czarist Russia. It’s the story of socialite (Kiera Knightley) married to a government officer (Jude Law), who finds herself falling in love with a charming cavalry officer named Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Eventually their attraction becomes undeniable, and they consummate the affair. Their passion exceeds a brief tryst, however, and Anna is forced to seek divorce, at the cost of great societal scorn.
“Karenina” paints a picture of Russian society at the time as well as telling a tale of adultery. Gentried land owners, socialites having parties, and of course, the less fortunate who toil in the fields. Privilege vs peonage. It also highlights the hypocrisy of gender expectations… Anna’s brother (Matthew Macfadyen) regularly cheats on his wife (Kelly Macdonald), and she’s expected to forgive and turn a blind eye, while Anna’s eventual indiscretions come at a much steeper price.
It’s an opus of a story, even though the film isn’t actually that long (2 hrs, 10 minutes).
But as opposed to creating a lifeless period drama, director Joe Wright chose to turn the film into a stylistic showcase. From the first moments, when a scene transition is accomplished by splitting and rolling away the set backdrop, as if you were watching a filmed play, the audience is aware that they’re not watching a film with traditional sensibilities. Extras will freeze as if time has stopped as the main characters share a crucial moment, or an office full of clerks will stand and sit and stamp and wave paperwork in an almost choreographed sequence. At one point, a character rips a letter to shreds and tosses it into the air, which in turn becomes a hard falling snow. These are not occasional moments which will break your immersion in the film by their sudden interjection, but rather, simply some of the examples that I can recall of what was a permeating, persistent directorial presence.
Have no doubt, this is Joe Wright’s movie. As excellent as some of the performances were (Knightley was fine, Jude Law was very good as the wronged man forced at times to keep a stiff upper lip, and I was very impressed by Alicia Vikander as Kitty Shcherbatskaya ), this is Wright’s movie all the way. At times he plays with the sets like Gilliam, at other times he chooses bright primary color schemes like Argento. You’re never fully settled with watching the film merely as an epic costumed period piece, because there’s always some surrealistic flourish to come.
For me, personally, that was the highlight of the film. I enjoyed watching him play with conventions and create something unique. I can easily understand how others will be put off by it, however, it definitely makes for a non-traditional classic adaptation. As far as I’m concerned, however, it breathed life into what could otherwise have easily been another dull costumed drama.