All the world’s a stage and the barrier between the player and audience is artificial at best. This is made painfully clear for the characters in Joe Wright’s latest period piece, Anna Karenina.
Director Wright has become something of a one-man Merchant-Ivory for the 21st century. Of course, the stylish Brit has tried to step outside of that box by directing contemporary dramas like The Soloist and the vastly underrated Euro-actioner Hanna. But the filmmaker still continues to be primarily known for the lavish period pieces he lenses with Keira Knightley at the center, like the lone rose in a delicately crafted flower arrangement. The filmmaker met his muse in 2005’s energetic adaptation of Pride & Prejudice. n 2007, the two reteamed for a second literary dramatization, Atonement. With Anna Karenina, director and leading lady go for the hat trick and boldly tackle a book that is considered by many to be the greatest novel ever written. Can they breathe new life into this classic story.
The film tells the story of the titular Anna and the destructive passions that can wreck havoc on a woman’s life. At the start of movie, Anna is married to the very saintly, but very distant Count Alexei Karenin (Jude Law), a senior statesman in Czarist Russia. She begs his leave to visit her brother, Oblonsky (Matthew Macfayden), in Moscow. Her righteous mission is to convince her philandering sibling’s wife, Dolly (Kelly Macdonald), to forgive her husband and turn a blind eye to his adultery. Otherwise, Dolly will face destitution.
Anna, much like her husband, takes satisfaction in being virtuous. But that changes when she attends a ball with her brother and meets a friend’s young suitor, Count Alexei Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). The boyish cavalry officer is immediately infatuated with Anna and cruelly ends one courtship to pursue the married woman. What begins as forbidden desire spirals into a torrid affair that threatens to cost Anna everything. The minister’s wife is painfully unaware that she’s standing alone in the spotlight of society.
The biggest challenge facing the movie is a simple question. Why should there be another film based on Leo Tolstoy’s literary epic? By IMDb’s count, there have been over 30 film and television adaptations of this tale to date. Indeed, at some points it feels like Wright is asking himself why he should be making any production that requires historical costuming again. The answer he and screenwriter Tom Stoppard come up with is to remove any metaphor and set the picture almost entirely on a stage.
This ambitious choice becomes the defining quality of the entire vision. When the ravishingly designed dresses and pressed powder blue uniforms are donned, the characters stand in a grand arena where they are both the actors and spectators. To work in the city is to toil in the theatre’s mezzanine where seats are removed for laborer’s tables. If a character wants to share a secret, they must go backstage. But they should be wary as someone is always watching. This movie wants to drive the point home that to be in 19th century Russian society is to always be acting for the audience, even if one is oblivious to this fact. Every character in the film watches as we do when Anna’s reluctance gives way to sensuality with Vronsky. Their dance is a performance just as much for the supporting cast as for us. When Karenin vainly struggles to hide his suspicion and jealousy, all around him study each close-up. The artificiality of life’s rules and the pretense of privacy are laid bare. So too is the verisimilitude of the movie.
There is something admirable about the film’s fearless desire to be this artistically self-aware. At times, the grandiosity of the concept seems to be channeling Baz Luhrmann’s Red Curtain Trilogy. Yet ultimately, it is an audacious design that draws the viewer to distraction, though cinematographer Seamus McGarvey does a heroic job of keeping things inventively fresh. In a film that only gets out of the theatre to contrast society life with rare scenes of the countryside, one never becomes bored by the visuals. However, for as intimate and emotionally complex a story as Anna Karenina, there is something distant and removed about this approach. Not only is Anna’s sense of privacy non-existent, so is our ability to get fully engrossed in a story that is keeping us at arm’s length. When the film gets to a fateful horse race, it is held entirely on a limited stage and the movie becomes more a creative curiosity than a gripping narrative.
Still, the picture does have many powerful elements going for it. Knightley is strong in her star turn and portrays Anna as both aware of the doom she is embracing and manically unable to stop it. In some previous movies, Knightley has struggled finding her characters’ centers, but with Wright she is always focused and firmly in control of the film. She makes for a stunning heroine who can believably become an all-consuming obsession for the men in her life. Taylor-Johnson continues to prove himself as a versatile up-and-coming actor. At 22, he already has achieved the ability to totally inhabit his performances. His scenes of intimacy with Knightley, mostly blessedly away from the theatre, are the best in the movie. Law also is excellent in the introverted but intensely sorrowful role of Karenin. He is a cuckolded man who both hates what his wife is doing to him and loves her when the rest of Russia will not.
Anna Karenina is a movie as ripe with tragedy and romance as the book it’s based on. And it is one that allows you to appreciate a director trying something different. But when all the world’s a stage, it cannot all be a fully realized film.