By Jessica Delfanti | November 16, 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
Anyone who has graduated from high school is well aware of the Shakespearean trademark: “All the world’s a stage.” As a device in theater, it has been employed time and time again for narrative purpose or stylistic choice, but rarely has anyone indulged the concept to such masterful grandeur as Joe Wright with his incredible new film, Anna Karenina. Indeed, when it was announced that a film adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s masterpiece would be released, certain lovers of the work were skeptical. However, combining Wright’s subtle eye with a script penned by Tom Stoppard, the film captures all the majesty of the original novel, with a bit of fresh filmmaking to boot. As expected, the film chronicles the story of Anna (Keira Knightley), a socialite and aristocrat in a loveless marriage to a statesman (Jude Law). Though Anna makes shows of contentment, it is clear that she is unsatisfied with the trappings of her privileged lifestyle, and thus engages in a steamy affair with Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Set in the opulent period of Russian aristocracy in the late 1800s, the film paints a picture of a world of indulgence within strict guidelines, and the punishment for those that broke the rules.
Knightley has worked with Wright previously in Pride and Prejudice and Atonement, and has proven to be a perfect fit for his taste from dramatic framing and taste for theater style lighting. Here, her particular beauty is especially highlighted with the lace veils, tightened corsets, and lustrous fur of the times. Her strongest performances lie in the last part of the film, when Anna must suffer the consequences of a societal crime; Knightley plays her anxious fervor and destructive depression with an acutely knowledgeable tone. Despite Knightley’s immeasurable skill as an actress, her Anna Karenina does, at times, feel somewhat devoid of the essential being that Anna is supposed to be: with Knightley’s severe form, her sharp angles, and her prim way of speaking, it is difficult to find her sensual, to see the deeply sexual Anna behind the proper aristocrat. In moments of passion and blind choice based upon sexual desire, it is easy to see, or perhaps feel, Knightley’s acting.
That said, the rest of the cast more than steps up to accommodate for the occasional failings in Knightley’s performance. Most notably, Matthew Macfadyen is a scene stealer as Anna’s philandering brother, Oblonsky. One time Weasley brother Domhnall Gleeson plays the sweet Levin, whose optimism about life and love offer a reprieve from the brutality of witnessing Anna’s downfall. And Taylor-Johnson updates his Kick-Ass tween appeal in a performance that is ripe with raw emotion and naive aspiration.
While each component of the film is remarkable, there is a part that stands out as truly incredible: the staging. Staging may not be something that is spoken about frequently with modern film, as trends on screen tend to lean toward a seamless experience of the story. Wright, instead, makes a bold choice by staging Anna Karenina almost completely within a beautiful, old theater. One can imagine the ways a director might arrange intimate scenes of aristocrats in a parlor, deep in conversation, upon a stage; the true genius, here, comes in the outdoor scenes, or scenes of great drama. Scenes in gardens, at horse races, in fields, are all revealed to be ensconced in the theater, framed by backdrops and beautiful props.
It is in this, and Wright’s other careful touches, that the director adds his own reading of Tolstoy’s work. The public show of Anna’s transgressions, and the lack of escape, as if she might flee through one door only to find herself before another audience; the discrepancy between views on adultery committed by women and men; the social rather than moral ambiguity of adultery in aristocratic Russia. Indeed, it is rare enough that one can successfully adapt such a beloved novel to screen; it is far rarer that one can do so, while simultaneously creating something marvelous and new from the material.