Director Joe Wright’s take on Tolstoy’s tragic love story, Anna Karenina, is bound to divide opinion, particularly after watching the initially distracting theatrical element of a film set within theatre set changes. Those who favour classic Russian epics, like the days of Doctor Zhivago, may well have envisaged this in grander, more realistic settings. Admittedly, it does take a moment to settle at the very beginning and to accept the hustle and bustle going on in almost ‘claustrophobic’ and tweet surroundings. However, this merely further establishes the growing psychological effect on its lead character.
Adapted by Academy Award winner Tom Stoppard, Tolstoy’s story is an exploration of the power of love and how it affects a supposedly happily married woman, Anna (Keira Knightley), when she encounters the full effects of raw lust then emotion on her happiness and her marriage, rocking her world in late-19th-century Russian high society.
Wright’s film is undeniably a bold, visually genius and powerfully emotional take that needs investment from the start to accept its unusual format. However, the period drama and exquisite costume beautifully compliment the entertaining blend of imagination, frank wit and highbrow theatrics delivered by an intriguing ensemble cast.
This film is the third time Wright has turned to his ‘muse’, Knightley to deliver a dichotomy of the strong and fragile female who is exposed in a man’s world of rules and etiquette. Like or loathe the actress, this kind of role is absolutely made for Knightley: she shines on screen, even in the most torrid moments of the story, changing from porcelain doll radiance one minute to demonic creature the next, all as her character’s hormones rage.
The only time the British actress might be held back in her endeavours is as a result of her pairing with Nowhere Boy actor Aaron Taylor-Johnson who plays her love interest, Count Vronsky. However, ‘pained’ and doe-eyed he tries to be, there is more than the odd stale moment in his delivery opposite the illuminating Knightley, when you wish he would just let forth in the passionate role, making you question his suitability.
In fact, some of the most powerful scenes are between Knightley and an almost unrecognisable Jude Law, playing Anna’s stiff bureaucratic husband Alexei Karenin. Law is a delight to watch in this reserved mode as he still manages to channel some pent-up emotion into the situation, making his casting one of the most intriguing. Another gem is Knightley’s Pride & Prejudice co-star Matthew Macfadyen, camping it up and have a ball as Anna’s philandering brother, Oblonsky, and bringing a lively spirit to the behind-the-scenes setting.
Wright’s lavish theatrical interpretation punctuated with stark wit could be accused of distancing the viewer from Tolstoy’s stoic written word. But at the same time as the sets are rapidly moved around, it could be argued that the director’s Anna Karenina is a vibrant, modern, fast-paced version that does not dwell on on-location settings as in the past, but ironically, within all the momentum, directly focuses our attention on the characters front of stage so we feel their emotion raging forth. It’s certainly a unique blend of theatre and film with that necessary ingredient for period drama fans of unashamed melodrama in spades, making it gripping cinema in its entirety.