Joe Wright’s new adaptation of Anna Karenina is absorbing and moving—eventually. The showy director burdens this film with such a heavy stylistic conceit that, like a czar in full robes, it has to struggle to its feet before it’s able to rule.
The conceit is that we’re watching a film of a stage production, but not just a stage production, a stage production that outgrows its stage and magically takes over the theater, eventually spilling out into real-world locations including fields, cities, mansions, and—of course—train platforms. The characters don’t know they’re in a play, so everyone has to play it totally straight while we try to figure out what the hell happened to those footlights.
This is maddeningly distracting at first: the very fluidity with which Wright executes his ambitious vision has you watching the scenery rather than following the story. Eventually, though, Wright settles down and gives the characters enough breathing room to engage us in their struggles. By the end, everything works—when the theater fills with sunlit grass and laughing children, the impact is both visual and emotional.
The theatrical setting underlines (unnecessarily) the artifice of Russian high society circa the 1870s, which was the present day when Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel was first published in serial installments. With marriage closely tied to social and financial security, neither men nor—especially—women were advised to wait around for true love to bloom. At the story’s opening, the eponymous Anna (Keira Knightley) has resigned herself to her station as mother of a young son and wife of a dispassionate but virtuous bureaucrat (Jude Law). When she falls into a torrid affair with cavalry officer Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), she finds herself forced to choose between her child and her passion.
The elements are standard melodrama, but what elevates this adaptation beyond soap opera is the clarity with which Wright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard paint Anna’s dilemma, and the complexity her character is allowed to have. Her husband, the obvious villain, is a man of limited imagination but great empathy, and he’s prepared to act within his powers to let Anna have what she wants—even to the point of sharing the marital bed. What’s required is for Anna to know what she wants: to know and trust herself, something no easier in 1874 than in 2012.
This is Knightley’s third collaboration with Wright, but anyone who’s seen A Dangerous Method will be thinking of that David Cronenberg film rather than Pride & Prejudice or Atonement—fortunately for Knightley, this is the kind of literary adaptation where the role of “foreign language” is played by “British accent,” so she doesn’t have to reprise the chunky Russian accent that burdened her kinky character in Dangerous Method. Knightley effectively plays Anna as a woman who was never allowed to be an impetuous teenager, and who realizes too late that outside the confines of her station in life she really has no idea who she is at heart.
The characters in this Karenina, in fact, are so adolescent that one wonders whether Wright and Stoppard would have done better to set this adaptation in a prep school, Cruel-Intentions-style. The Law character would be the uptight student council president, the Taylor-Johnson character would be the track star, and the subplot about Domhnall Gleeson’s noble landowner would involve a kid who goes on a mission trip to build houses in Tijuana.
To say that the characters in this Karenina are adolescent is to say that they’re human, which in a production this lavish is a distinct compliment. It’s worth going to see, and bring some napkins—you’ll need them either to wipe your tears or to wipe the popcorn butter off your fingers.