“Anna Karenina,” written by Tom Stoppard (screenplay) and Leo Tolstoy (novel), directed by Joe Wright, 129 minutes, rated R.
Director Joe Wright has an impressive track record when collaborating with Keira Knightley, producing two period pieces in “Pride and Prejudice” and “Atonement” that are both powerful and visually arresting. In Wright’s latest endeavor with Knightley, an adaptation of Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina,” he strays from the fine-tuned sweeping epics of the duo’s past to create something that is much riskier, and, one could argue, more artistic.
Knightley portrays the title character of Tolstoy’s tale of adultery in 19th century Russia, who finds herself trapped by the life she has chosen but now regrets, married to Karenin (Jude Law), a conservative politician admired by his country. Anna’s life is complicated by her introduction to Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a young, handsome cavalry officer smitten with Anna from the moment he meets her. Vronsky’s persistence in pursuit of Anna’s affection eventually wins her over, and as gossip spreads among the aristocratic circle Anna and Karenin belong to, she’s forced to face her tarnishing reputation.
Wright brings a fresh vision to “Karenina,” setting the adaptation primarily on a stage, distancing itself from the audience, and at times, the story and characters, by obscuring the line of reality for viewers, while bending the “rules” of cinema. As Anna’s world spins out of control, the film’s ambiguous nature plays an increasingly critical role, bringing into question how much of Anna’s struggle is, in fact, disillusions she is projecting.
The stage setup is reminiscent of something that Baz Luhrmann (“Moulin Rouge,” “Romeo + Juliet”) might attempt, as extras become stagehands, ushering one scene into the next. Wright’s rhythm and the way he brilliantly works the score into the film’s movement and characters’ motions are as present as ever in “Karenina.” He even takes it a step further, indulging a bit in his signature style, with cuts and edits that become more frenetic as the film builds steam, so much so that the story becomes a bit stilted. But Wright is a filmmaker who has achieved so much in his young career, that he can now take chances like this, while most seasoned filmmakers can only dream of it.
Unlike “Atonement” and “Pride and Prejudice,” both of which leave you in awe in their own ways, embedding themselves somewhat comfortably in your mind for days upon days, “Anna Karenina” is a whirlwind that you have to process. By no means is it an easy film, but it’s certainly something you can’t help but admire, and if you dwell on it just long enough, you might even come to enjoy it.