By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist September 2, 2012 at 7:53PM
When it was announced that Joe Wright was going to direct a new film version of Leo Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina," starring his cinematic muse Keira Knightley, most people probably knew what to expect. After all, the two had collaborated on both Wright's debut "Pride & Prejudice" and "Atonement" (both also produced by Working Title Films) and it was easy to assume that their take on the Russian classic would be along similar lines; a handsome period piece taking advantage of the best British actors available, and with a few showy camera touches that would set it apart from your average costume drama.
And in some ways, they would be right. But as it turns out, Wright, presumably let free a little by his experimental pop-art action movie "Hanna" last year, was up to something bolder: a heavily stylized, theatrical version that takes the story and sets most (but not quite all) of it within the confines of grand, but faded, theater, making sure the artifice is never concealed. Would it be an ingenious reimagining of an oft-told tale (last seen on the big screen in Bernard Rose's 1997 version, starring Sophie Marceau and Sean Bean)? Or a style-over-substance take that attempts to fix what was never broken? Despite a conceit that isn't 100% watertight, it's happily closer to the former, thanks to Wright's bold vision, a tremendous adaptation by Sir Tom Stoppard, and a superb cast.
The plot for the most part remains the same; indeed, Stoppard has somehow managed to put together something more faithful than the novel than most takes, despite a just-this-side-of-a-bum-numbing 130 minute running time. Anna Karenina (Knightley), who married and had a son with her successful St. Petersburg politician husband Alexei Karenin (Jude Law) at a young age, comes to Moscow to visit her brother, Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen, bedecked in a magnificent walrus mustache), who's just been caught philandering with the governess by his wife Dolly (Kelly Macdonald). There's another visitor in town too, Oblonsky's friend Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), a simple farmer, who's come to propose to the object of his affections, Dolly's sister Kitty (Alicia Vikander).
But Kitty is in turn in love with young soldier Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), and rebuffs a heartbroken Levin. But she's soon just as disappointed as Anna and Vronsky meet at a ball, and fall passionately in love. She initally tries to resist, but when Vronsky follows her to St. Petersburg, a passionate affair begins, one that can only have tragic consequences...
Title aside, it's surprising the degree to which Stoppard's script focuses on those who aren't Anna, and Levin in particular, and it's this approach that's key to Wright's grand conceit. He's a pastoral fellow, one who's happier with the simple pleasures, in marked contrast to the trivial frolicking of the city classes, and the director drives this home by shooting all of the Moscow and St. Petersburg scenes within the grand, theatrical soundstage (which even includes rafters and backstage areas, hammering home its Brechtian nature), and opening out to location work when Levin returns to the countryside for a life of purity and goodness.
It's a neat way to encapsulate one of the novels' major fascinations, and for the most part, it works both thematically and cinematically. Many may get turned off early on by the sheer theatricality, particularly as Wright launches into it at full speed, with a dizzying opening reel. One imagines, from the red curtain and prosecenium arch that make up the first image on screen that Baz Luhrmann was something of an inspiration, but the director settles down from a manic opening, and it begins to feel more like the bold, technicolor work of Powell & Pressburger than anything else. And after that bumpy opening, it starts to feel like second nature, even when the space is transformed into an ice rink, a train station, or, most memorably, a racetrack.
For one, the film looks truly stunning, thanks to spectacular costume and production design work, and some of Wright and DoP Seamus McGarvey's now trademark tracking shots (which somehow feel less shoehorned-in or at least, more in keeping with the style of the piece as a whole, than in previous work), while McGarvey embraces the nature of the concept with some beautiful, and very theatrical lighting. Crucially, the artifice also doesn't overwhelm the performances, or the narrative. We certainly bought into the situation as much as we would have in a more traditional approach.
It's a shame, then, that Wright leaves seemingly leaves some holes in his conceit. It makes sense -- indeed, it's hugely refreshing -- when the theater's doors open, and Levin walks out into the snow. Only then do you realize how claustrophobic and confining it's felt within Russian society. But it feels less thematically well-reasoned when Anna and Vronsky romp together in the countryside. Is their love the kind of purity of existence that Levin seeks? Have they been freed from society? It starts to pull at the threads of the universe that Wright's established, which is a shame when the rest of it seems to have been so carefully planned out. It doesn't help that some of the interior scenes with Levin feel just as claustrophobic -- the first time he retreats to his cottage, you might as well be back inside the theater.
It's a shame, given that Wright gets about 90% of the way, but it's also fortunate, then, that the foundations on which the theater are built, as it were, are so solid. Stoppard's script is occasionally a little muddy when it comes to geography and character relations, but for the most part it fits an expansive tale into the running time (which reaches its conclusion just as you start to feel it) elegantly and inventively, and manages to feature wit, poetry and real feeling as well. It's virtually the model for a good adaptation.
Almost without exception, the cast are terrific too. Knightley continues to go from strength to strength with each project, giving Anna a flightiness and impulsiveness that feel almost more like an Ibsen heroine than a Tolstoy one, but it's a smart take on the character, and she truly impresses when she lets the fireworks fly towards the end. Law is excellent too, in a part that's older and more buttoned-up than the kind he normally gets; the perspective of the script is more empathetic to Karenin than you might expect, and the actor succeeds entirely in giving you reason to feel for him, while also making you understand why Anna might turn elsewhere.
They're the bigger names in the ensemble, but it's one of real depth and variety; so much so that one feels that certain cast members get short shrift. Emily Watson, Shirley Henderson and Olivia Williams feel particularly underused, while a rising star like Vicky McClure ("This Is England") crops up, only to be denied a line at all. Still, several actors do manage to make a real impression. Matthew MacFayden is enjoyably broad, a world away from his Mr. Darcy, as Oblonsky, threatening, but never quite managing to, tip into caricature, and his approach pays off beautifully with a single heartbreaking shot near the end. And as his wife, Kelly MacDonald perhaps doesn't get as much screen time as we'd like, but she's also warm, sweet and smarter than she might at first appear.
Best of all are Domnhal Gleeson and Alicia Vikander, as faltering would-be lovers Levin and Kitty. They're the least well-known names among the principal cast, but on this basis, it's unlikely to remain that way for long. Gleeson effortlessly shows the good-hearted nature of Levin, but isn't afraid to dig into the hypocrisy of the character, while Vikander does wonders with a tricky part that's written on the page as to be almost saint-like, but she never lets you forget the real human being there as well. The two have great chemistry together, as well, with one scene involving letter-blocks that's more romantic and sensual than a dozen sex scenes. The lone disappointement is Taylor-Johnson; he acquits himself fairly well for much of the film without ever quite impressing, and starts to feel a little out of his depth by the time the stakes are raised.
We suspect, all in all, that the film is going to divide people enormously. There'll be some who get turned off the concept from the start and never get on board. And that's fine, but we hope they don't miss the pleasures the film contains as a result -- McGarvey's spectacular camerawork, Dario Marianelli's handsome score, weaving niftily between being diagetic and non-diagetic and the intelligence and intimacy of the performances. As for ourselves, we found it both fascinatingly theatrical and thrillingly cinematic, a picture that's lingered on our minds more than we expected, and while not quite an unreserved cause for celebration, it's a film that we cherish despite its flaws. [B+]