By Don Simpson | November 29, 2012
Director: Joe Wright
Writers: Tom Stoppard, Leo Tolstoy (novel)
Starring: Keira Knightley, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Jude Law, Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Ruth Wilson, Matthew Macfadyen, Kelly Macdonald, Luke Newberry, Olivia Williams, Emily Watson
My greatest compliment for Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina is that it is unlike any film I have ever seen. Like an amusement ride that spins you around and gets you kind of loopy — yet without inducing a sense of nausea — Anna Karenina is designed for pure escapism. Shedding the political and social reality that grounded Leo Tolstoy’s source novel, Wright’s film is first and foremost a fantastical performance piece. Wright sets Anna Karenina within the confines of a theater in which the set design constantly moves and morphs — and I mean constantly. Utilizing a stream-of-consciousness narrative structure, each scene melts seamlessly into the next, like an extravagantly rendered dream. The choreography and fluidity of it all is downright astounding. I might even go as far as calling Anna Karenina a visual masterpiece.
Wright saturates the screen with visual metaphors, allowing for the set design to convey a majority of the film’s messages. First and foremost, Wright cleverly alludes to the theatricality of the lives of mid-19th-century Russian aristocrats by blatantly staging their lives within the walls of the theater. In doing so, Wright reveals the strictly defined roles of this intrinsically hierarchical society. Life is but a stage and all of the characters have precisely orchestrated roles to play; they each play their part, speak their dialogue, and stand (or sit) in their proper place. Like dolls on public display in a dollhouse (a metaphor Wright seems particular fond of), the ever-scrutinizing eye of society never allows for any sense of privacy.
The only time Wright allows for us to venture outside the confines of the theater is when the participants in the film’s two parallel love stories are completely free and honest in the expression of their feelings for each other. Anna (Keira Knightley) and Prince Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) experience true love — but their affair is an instant scandal in St. Petersburg social circles because Anna is already married to Alexei (Jude Law), with whom she has a young son (Oskar McNamara). Their doomed-from-the-start relationship is juxtaposed by the innocence and purity of the love shared between Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) and Princess Kitty (Alicia Vikander).
All the while, we are made aware of the restrictive role of married women in Russian society. Anna’s loveless relationship with Alexei is observed mostly within the dark, confined spaces of their home (which of course is a set within the aforementioned theater); while Anna’s womanizing brother Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen) appears to live in an even more claustrophobic abode with his scorned wife Dolly (Kelly Macdonald). It is abundantly clear that mid-19th-century Russia is an oppressive world ruled solely by men. In this setting, Anna is a rogue proto-feminist heroine stuck in a battle that will be impossible to win. Instead, it is Levin who is worshiped with saint-like regard for his progressive ideologies (which are said to convey Tolstoy’s own) and he is rewarded handsomely with the only happily ever after ending of this otherwise dire tale.
While I found myself mesmerized by the visuals and the surreal structure of the narrative, I am a bit disappointed by the over-simplicity of the story and dialogue (I expected Tom Stoppard to saturate the script with an unrivaled verbal eloquence along the lines of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead or Brazil). Because of the highly-stylized nature of the film, the story itself feels like whirlwind tour (but I won’t go as far as comparing it to a CliffsNotes version) of an epic 900-page literary masterpiece. In my eyes, that is really Anna Karenina‘s one and only fault — because even though their lines seem a bit watered-down, Keira Knightley and Jude Law clock in some of the best performances of their careers; Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander and Matthew Macfadyen are quite outstanding as well.