Anna Karenina goes further than you'd expect
Starring Keira Knightley and Jude Law. Rated PG. Opens Friday, November 30, at the Ridge Theatre
Anna Karenina has been filmed dozens of times, so it’s fair for director Joe Wright to assume we already know Leo Tolstoy’s classic study of an aristocrat trapped inside the rituals of 1870s Russian high society. And he takes it several steps further than you might expect. Except for judiciously chosen departures, the entire tale takes place within the confines of a large St. Petersburg theatre, with the main stage, orchestra pit, box seats, and flies transformed into ever-changing sites of events as varied as grand dances, opulent dinners, squalid bedsits, and, most improbably, a horse race.
Centring this exquisitely costumed and choreographed nuttiness—call it Baz Luhrmann with taste—is Keira Knightley, back for her third literary visit with Wright, after his creative adaptations of Atonement and Pride & Prejudice. Tied lovelessly to a high-minded yet remote tsarist minister (a superb Jude Law), her Anna has done everything correctly. But that unravels when the good wife and mother gets a major crush on callow, preening Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), previously seen courting her pretty sister-in-law Kitty (Alicia Vikander).
Kitty is more deeply admired by Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), an incipient revolutionary and rural pal of Anna’s philandering brother (Matthew Macfadyen). Their stories allow some relief, both philosophical and comic, from the main saga of doomed hearts. Wright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard have given us a less likable duo than usual, so the focus shifts from the emotional to formal aspects of love, marriage, and the whole damn thing.
The film’s voluptuous audacity pays off, even if the almost shocking abundance of visual marvels proves somewhat exhausting at just over two hours. The clockwork pace is kept by many trains running through the tale, ominously—not just because of what they mean for Anna, but for the threat of change they’ll soon bring to all of Russia.
Watch the trailer for Anna Karenina.