If there is one thing that you cannot deny about Joe Wright is that he never puts limits on himself as a filmmaker. This comes even with the announcement of 'yet another costume drama' that have had most of his detractors wanting to pin him with that unfashionable label since the one-two punch of Pride & Prejudice and Atonement. Look closer and you'll find a director who continually emerges with ambitious stylistic tendencies - what other 'costume drama director' can boast a techno fairy-tale spy thriller as their last feature? His fifth feature Anna Karenina ends up feeling like an expression of the accumulative styles from his previous features - the musicality of Hanna, the visual abstraction of The Soloist, the old school romanticism of Atonement. Combining this with his regular troupe of oncall British talent and a witty, sharp screenplay from Oscar winning playwright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard, Wright has created an energized version of Anna Karenina by setting it all in a theatre, with the characters of Leo Tolstoy's soap opera as its players.
The success of the show here depends on how well the characters can play and maintain their roles, which for our title heroine (frequent Wright collaborator Keira Knightley, Atonement) who 'breaks the rules' when she cheats on her loyal but passionless husband Karenin (Jude Law, Contagion) for a dashing cavalry officer Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Savages), proves disastrous.
The whole concept provides a constant subtext which revolves around the book's themes of societal rules defining the roles we must play in life, that Stoppard's briskly condensed screenplay may not have as much room to convey. Class differences as well as contrasts between public and private behavior end up expressed in alternating backstage and main stage environments, with the exception of naturalistic settings for Levin's (Domhall Gleeson) idealistic rural life away from society. The most eye-catching of these are of course the ones set on the main stage which involve the aristocracy gathering for lavish set pieces within the theatre (which include a grand ball, an opera and even a horse race) while the working class work the pulleys and ropes that operate the whole thing.
But such is the bombast of the technical aspect of the production, which include loud yet beautifully character-informing costume designs, make-up and hair-styling, a painterly array of backdrops and folding sets as well as some mobile and glittery lensing from Seamus McGarvey (previously worked with Wright on Atonement) that during my first viewing I felt it nearly overcame the story and its characters, but not in an entirely negative way. On the contrary I felt that the visual and aural density of the film combined with the ballet-like elegance of Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui's choreography (used throughout the film) and Melanie Oliver's slick, sinewy editing style gave such forward thrust that you can not help but feel a dizzying sense of emotion as the plot whirls past.
But once you have a grip on this unique choice of storytelling, the performances prove they easily match the technical wizardry of the production. In the title role, Knightley benefits greatly from her proven ability to enfuse the period heroines she plays with a charming likability, vital here considering the increasingly volatile behavior of Anna as her affair further ostracizes her from society. The bipolar mood swings is what has always made the character so simultaneously fascinating and frustrating, and Knightley skillfully navigates it, not afraid of overplaying to match the heightened theatrical style. Aiding her is Wright's talent for being able to direct romance in the fashion of classic 'women's' melodramas, which feels incredibly refreshing in the sex-central landscape of contemporary romantic films. His ability to draw loving two shots between Anna and Vronsky, even after one of their explosive trysts as the relationship become increasingly strained, reminds the audience of the passion so beautifully wrought through glances and through an expressive dance at the ball earlier in the film.
The supporting cast is typically in top form, littered with top British talent. Ruth Wilson's softly spoken manipulator Princess Betsy is particularly beguiling, fluttering around submissively while quietly pulling the strings to help along Anna and Vronsky's affair, as if only to amuse herself. Matthew Macfayden (Pride & Prejudice), freed with the comic potential of playing Anna's philandering brother Oblonsky, delivers laughs aplenty without having it spill over when his character is reminded of the shame of his own adulterous deeds. Best of all is Jude Law's shaded take on Karenin, making him feel both authoritative and vulnerable as his heart is quietly broken under his hard, seemingly impenetrable shell. His scenes with Knightley remain the most captivating as we struggle to decide who is right and who is in the wrong, such is the hold these players have on the complexities of their characters.
It is no wonder Wright has managed to develop such a loyal production team and acting troupe when he is able to orchestrate them so skillfully and to such creative heights. Stoppard has said that Tolstoy's novel was an 'essay on love' and not only is Wright's breathtaking, magical take on the novel just that, a whirlwind of emotion to show the overwhelming amount of sides of that abstract emotion, but from the dedicated craft of each element of its design the film is a work of passion itself.
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