Daring, challenging, thrilling, and sometimes frustrating. Those are just some of the adjectives one can use to describe director Joe Wright’s inventive take on Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel Anna Karenina. Starring his three-time muse Keira Knightly as Anna, Wright has crafted a period drama whose approach falls somewhere between Baz Luhrmann and David Lean.
Set in the late 19th-century Russia, an aristocrat named Anna is married to (and has a child with) the faithful, yet dull Karenin (Jude Law); but finds herself drawn to the handsome Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and begins an affair. This leads to a sort of high-society shunning of Anna who can seem like a selfish snob, but deep down is just a girl who married too young and is finding herself needing more.
Around Anna are a myriad of characters with their own romantic pinings. These include Constantine (Domhnall Gleeson),, a quiet everyman who plans on proposing to Anna’s cousin Kitty (Alicia Vikander). Anna’s brother Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen, Knightly’s co-star in the Wright directed "Pride and Prejudice") has recently had an affair much to his pregnant wife’s (Kelly Macdonald) consternation. The common themes of infidelity, repressed love, and the machinations of a society that is all about appearance thread intertwine all of these examples of Tolstoy’s profound meditation on the conflict between marriage and commitment.
If a hundred characters seem to be coming and going, their stories’ themes and plot points are nothing we haven’t seen in countless dramas (not to mention soap operas). If Wright had simply filmed the standard costume drama with elaborate locations and period mansions, chances are we would have been a bit bored.
Instead, he has constructed a "film within a play that’s not really a play at all."
When the film opens, he does so by showing us a stage. On it are Oblonsky and a barber preparing to give him a shave. Their movements and mannerisms are larger than life; essentially stage acting. But when the barber raises his blade with a flourish, we suddenly cut to a clean-shaven Oblonsky.
With this neat camera trick, Wright uses the conventions of theater combined with modern filmmaking techniques to create a gorgeous hybrid of stage and screen. At first, it takes some getting used to. But even while you are acclimating yourself to it, you can’t take your eyes off of it.
At times, it seems the actors are in a musical without songs. Extras move about the stage and set in a syncopated rhythm while altering the set so as to bring the characters to a new "location." A toy train becomes a real train and vistas and backdrops are clearly painted backdrops.
There are moments where we do venture outside the theatre into the real world, mostly when Constantine, rejected by Kitty, returns to the farm as he works out his frustrations bailing hay. Also when Anna herself goes back to her home with her husband, we are quite frequently in an opulent mansion. The clue here is that anytime these characters are "on display" for society, they are on a stage of sorts. In private situations their setting is more real. But even so, when characters need to act their way through a situation, once again, the stage setting will surface.
Wright and his production team -- production designer Sarah Greenwood, set decorator Katie Spencer and costume designer Jacqueline Durran -- work overtime in creating an astounding playscape for their actors. Not only do they need to get the period details right, they must combine this with the "stage" setting Wright has established. Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey masterfully navigates scenes of realism and the "fauxness" of the theatre to create a colorful and lavish landscape that is consistently stunning. The dance sequence in which Anna and Vronsky fall in love (to the dismay of Kitty) is dazzling, as is another society party where Karenin informs Anna that her behavior has tongues wagging. But in that there are scenes of subtle beauty; most notably a lovely moment between Kitty and Constantine where they express their feelings through lettered toy blocks.
One cannot fail to mention composer Dario Marianelli whose score is an intricate part of the film. So much so that his score was recorded prior to filming so that sequences like the dance could be choreographed accordingly.
The acting by an enormously talented cast is exceptional. It’s important to note that the style of the film harkens back to costume dramas of the early days of cinema, so there are many times when the gestures are big and the longing glances might seem overwrought. But if this is a story played out on a stage. It’s got to be larger than life; the declarations of love have got to seem like matters of life or death.
In this, the cast handles the challenge beautifully; by keeping their emotions at just the right height, they don’t succumb to histrionics. Leave it to the film itself for the swooning quality. This is a movie you just can’t take your eyes off of. Love the characters or hate them (and many times you will hate Anna and you will find Vronsky a slimeball), you can’t deny the ingenuity and mastery on the screen.