Rich, invigorating and sensual, Joe Wright’s “Anna Karenina” never stops being bold or ambitious thanks to the theatrical approach taken by the director to Leo Tolstoy’s legendary epic work. Set in Tolstoy’s Russia of the 1870s though stripped of a lot of the politics and agricultural minutiae that fills the novel, “Anna Karenina” dives deep into the comedy and tragedy of emotions governed by the boundless, impossible, inconvenient love that grips Anna (Keira Knightley) and Kitty (Alicia Vikander), each of whom have eyes for the wealthy Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Anna, of the aristocracy, is married to the political figure Karenin (Jude Law). Their existence together is at best cautious. Kitty is vigorously pursued by Lenin (Domhnall Gleeson).
Each of these loveseekers have a strong desire to break with staid convention, and by extension Mr. Wright, a director who typically uses flourish and style with zeal, takes what for cinematic purposes might be a constrained platform of theater on film and breathes life and freedom into this oft-filmed story. At heart a theatrical type of movie director, Mr. Wright exhibits a keen sense of choreography throughout virtually all his films. Whether in shots of Ms. Knightley and James McAvoy swirling in the heat of love in “Atonement” or that film’s minutes-long tracking shot of battle and rancor; or the dance of color and light plus the end credits dance in “The Soloist”; or Eric Bana’s fight scene amplified by The Chemical Brothers’ music in “Hanna”, or a dizzying dance of tension in his new film; Mr. Wright is adept at shaking things up and imagining them in refreshing ways. This confidence of vision works almost always for the better not only for the medium Mr. Wright works in but strictly in the story he tells.
Anna, a mother in very good social standing in Russia, tries to rule and regulate her feelings for Vronsky, and Ms. Knightley, a theatrical film performer, sinks into the role and does well, her eyes burning with passion. She tries to betray her heart but cannot get free of Vronsky, a man who bleeds love for her. Mr. Wright’s creativity and vision is well-suited to Ms. Knightley’s approach to Anna. Where she seemed too theatrical (and wildly overacted) in a period film like last year’s “A Dangerous Method”, a film governed by psychological themes and issues rather than physical movement, she makes Anna a being who feels, touches, and moves furtively and dynamically without artifice or the stilted awkwardness displayed in David Cronenberg’s film. Ms. Knightley looks more comfortable as an actor enveloped in Mr. Wright’s playful screen atmosphere. At times electric and unbounded, Ms. Knightley’s work here isn’t incongruous to Mr. Wright’s sense of adventure and creativity, or vice versa, and there’s no surprise that the two are an effective pair who work well with and for each other (“Sense & Sensibility”, “Atonement”.)
As Karenin, a measured Mr. Law is besotted with tragedy and conflict, and his role as cuckold and empathizer is tricky. He is sympathetic but colorless, appropriately (for story purposes) at odds with the grand, exuberant theater of Mr. Wright’s stage. Karenin is knowing but naive, an adult on the outskirts of a child’s playground of reckless love, wantonness and indulgence. One scene involving Karenin and two other prominent characters represents a crossing of two speeds: one alive, the other outmoded and almost dead, reconciling somewhere in the middle. The scene in question represents a crossroads moment — the idea that electricity and reality will eventually collide, with only one of those variables staying alive.
Vronsky is rich in heart, a younger man whose flash and debonair charms are deeper than represented by Mr. Taylor-Johnson (“Kick-Ass”), whom while evoking these characteristics well, doesn’t penetrate Tom Stoppard’s lively screenplay more deeply than the symbolic figure he is onscreen. Vronksy is shown more as an idea, a tablet or surface representation of the object of desire, yet Mr. Wright shrewdly avoids objectifying Vronsky and Anna when they are in the throes of love by using close-ups, making the pair when in union intellectual and intensely sensual creatures rather than purely physical and feral ones.
“Anna Karenina” could have been a bore but it is always magically alive. Mr. Wright gives an onomatopoeic rhythm to brewing tensions in several key scenes. The tender undercard story of the film is Lenin’s abiding quest to win over Kitty, the quiet and demure woman he has always wanted and loved but who has spurned him. Mr. Elliott is particularly good playing Lenin, an innocent introduced to the fruits (and fruitlessness) of the pursuit of love, and is a medium-temperature character who lies somewhere between the cool, rational dispatch of Karenin and the heated, spontaneous Vronsky.
Both stories are occasionally interrupted for the comic relief and brilliance of Matthew MacFadyen as Oblonsky, Anna’s brother, forever a matchmaker and a philanderer. Mr. MacFadyen gleefully mocks all of this seriousness and indiscretion with his irreverence, cynicism and dispassion, and he could easily be a 21st century audience member. Indeed, “Anna Karenina” is timeless and its themes everlasting, relevant to today, tomorrow and forever. (Can you imagine U.S. General David Petraeus’ current personal issues being put on screen quite like this? Imagine the theater. And the costume drama.)
Stylized with energy, sumptuous color, elegant costumes and superb Oscar-worthy production design by Sarah Greenwood, “Anna Karenina” uses each of these not as props or the kind of background noise that drowns some period-era films. These filmmaking elements make a strong statement, symbolically and substantively and make Mr. Wright’s film the spectacle of entertainment and energy that it deserves to be. Backed with an solid ensemble cast of fine actors, “Anna Karenina” shows us a director who improves with each successive film.
—At the Kabuki, area theaters
Also with: Kelly Macdonald, Olivia Williams, Ruth Wilson, Emily Watson.
Read original review here
“Anna Karenina” is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for some sexuality and violence. The film’s running time is two hours and seven minutes.
For more of Omar’s film stories, movie reviews and interviews visit his Popcorn Reel website and watch his unscripted film reviews on YouTube. Follow him on Twitter.
For a list of Omar’s rootshed.com stories and film reviews, click here. He’s been a contributing film critic for “Ebert Presents At The Movies” on PBS television and is a far flung correspondent for the preeminent film critic Roger Ebert and a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.
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