By David Salazar ( | First Posted: Nov 08, 2012 08:19 AM EST

Keira Knightley stars as Anna in director Joe Wright’s bold, theatrical new vision of the epic story of love, Anna Karenina, a Focus Features release.

(Photo : Credit: Laurie Sparham)

Joe Wright has always been one of my favorite current directors; Atonement was a film laden with emotional engagement that few films have matched in the last few years and his more recent picture Hanna was an interesting stylish take on the action thriller. Both of these films demonstrate a director not only able to build complex narratives, but to do so with visual innovation and control.

Now comes Anna Karenina, a bold interpretation on Leo Tolstoy's masterwork. Wright originally set out to make the film in traditional locations, but budget constraints forced him to set his sights on something smaller; in the process he came up with something bigger. His concept sets the work in a theater and it provides a solid metaphor to examine the façade behind 19th century Russian society where appearances dominated people's lifestyles and those who chose to break away from the rules of the infrastructure were cast out like lepers. The main heroine is one such pariah and her decline from the model citizen to an outcast is one of the most complex and satisfying ever written.

The majority of the scenes featuring the upper classes and their grand events and balls take place on stage while some of the private scenes take place backstage. One scene early on in the film has Levin leave a party taking place on stage. He exits to what is supposed to be the world of the lower working classes and at that point he walks through the backstage area where the stagehands (common folk) are hard at work. Anna and Vronsky meet on elaborate stage sets and their romance develops in similar settings. As the liaison deepens, the stage concept dissolves somewhat and the locations now seem like real places. It seems as if the façade of the theater has disappeared and Vronsky and Anna have committed to treating their theatrical romance as if it were real life. It sheds new light on how the story ultimately resolves itself and how those who choose to try to ignore their theatrical existence are bound to suffer. The characters also employ balletic movements that give the film an energy and grace that would have been lacking had it been set in a regular setting with more naturalistic performances.

The only time the film leaves the theater setting is when Levin exits to the countryside. He is the only character in the film that is not a part of the St. Petersburg or Moscow society, but instead embraces the freedom of the countryside. However, his home suggests that this locale may not be that much more liberating. A scene late in film suggests that even those who attempt to run away from the theatrical society are still bound to some sort of social enslavement.

In addition to his theatrical concept, Joe Wright places a great deal of emphasis on one of Tolstoy's main themes: the mortality of love. This particular theme comes to the fore with some of the film's subplots and colors the main plot revolving around Anna.

These subplots, particularly the one revolving around Levin and Kitty are the strongest aspects of the film.  As aforementioned, Levin is the free spirit in the film and his desire for the ideal of love also makes him the most relatable. Domhall Gleeson's rugged appearance adds to Levin's isolation, particularly since the first scene of the film portrays Oblonsky being shaven. Gleeson's Levin is timid and lacks the confidence that pervades the film's other personages, but he comes off as the most authentic character. He and Alicia Vikander share what may be the most heartfelt scene of the entire film that showcases Wright's talent for saying so much with so little.

Alicia Vikander proves to be the perfect choice for the frail and tender Kitty. Physically she embodies those characteristics, but her delicate and graceful movements make her the angel that Levin speaks of earlier. The performance is further benefitted by the development that Vikander accomplishes. Kitty is all energy and smiles early on in the film to suggest her idealistic charm. However her heartbreak hardens her a bit and her character, while maintaining the gentleness, takes on a more serious complexion that projects a mature woman.

The other side story that adds dimension to the film is Oblonsky and Dolly's failed marriage. Wright makes an interesting choice of making Oblonsky the comic relief in an otherwise grave story; and it is a brilliant choice to be sure. Matthew McFayden is unrecognizable behind his massive mustache, but his exuberance refreshes the story every time it moves into darker territory. More importantly, the fact that Oblonsky seems to be the jokester in the story balances well with his attitudes toward marriage and society. Kelly McDonald's Dolly is a more tragic character; she is a woman that must come to terms with the fact that the unhappiness in her marriage is her fate. But she is also left as comic relief as McDonald's delivery is often exaggerated to fit in with the style of that particular storyline.

That brings us to the main plot surrounding Anna's fall from grace. Unfortunately, this may be the film's major flaw. Screenwriter Sir Tom Stoppard takes a few understandable liberties with the story's denouement, but some of them rob Anna of her dignity and more than a few choices make her lose the audience's sympathies. Wright also has his share of mistakes in this as well, but his biggest may have been committed with the best of intentions.

It would have been easy to make Karenin unlikeable in order to justify Anna's affair, but it would have made for a rather trivial and cliché story. I applaud Wright for imbuing the character with complexity, but Jude Law winds up delivering the film's most compelling and complex performance. This is a man who uses stiff movements and his voice is borderline monotone to suggest his rigid confinement within the social structure. However Law's grave expression gives off a tragic dimension. More importantly, Law's Karenin is among the more active characters in the drama and also the most forgiving. He never mistreats Anna and even when she rejects him and openly tells him of her desire to run off with her lover, he is more than willing to forgive her. Watching such a noble man like Karenin suffer ultimately hurts the narrative arc of Anna who becomes more and more irksome to the viewer.

But Law's dignified Karenin would not be an issue for the story if he had a comparable foe in Vronsky. Unfortunately this is not the case either. Aaron Taylor-Johnson is only 22, but he looks like he could be 18. In the film, he is supposed to be an attractive and imposing hero in his mid-20s, but instead he looks goofy with a massive mustache and a messy wig. His boyish expressions do not help matters and at a few moments in the film Taylor-Johnson's Vronsky weeps like a pathetic child that further weakens the sympathy one might feel for him. Compared with the gentle and humble figure of Law's Karenin, Vronsky comes off less as a hero and more as an impetuous adolescent. It begs the question of why Anna would ever go for this guy and not stay with her husband. That question lingers throughout the entire film and never leaves.

Keira Knightley uses all her resources to imbue with Anna with the gravitas of a model wife and exemplary mother. She brings elegance in her movement and her speech and her decline into neurosis features more frayed movement and line delivery. This performance showcases the British actress at her best and it seems that she is past the often-melodramatic posturing that weakened some of her better performances.  Her most beautiful scenes feature Anna's relationship with her son Serhoza. Unfortunately, Knightley's ability to make Anna a redeemable heroine is hindered by some questionable scripting choices. Not once does Wright and company portray the decadence of Anna and Karenin's marriage. They spend time in separate rooms and their conversation is banal, but the emotional emptiness is not fully fleshed. The result is that Anna's choice to leave her husband feels a bit unwarranted and egotistical. Her choices near the end of the film and her ultimate fate also make her look immature and unsympathetic, particularly since not all of her doors have been closed (as portrayed in the novel). This Anna does not come off as a tragic heroine with nowhere and no one to go to, but as a desperate, irrational one who makes the wrong decisions for selfish reasons.

Joe Wright and Cinematographer Seamus McGreavy showcase their finest collaboration together. The theatrical setting seems to have inspired some of the best cinematography of the year as Wright's sweeping long times provide seamless transitions from scene to scene, but also give the visual style a balletic feel. As Levin leaves Oblonsky's office on his way to their encounter at the restaurant, the camera swirls to show a different area of the theater and then follows Levin around as the set changes into what ultimately becomes the restaurant. A similar transition follows at the end of this scene as Levin rises and the camera pans around to show the stage and Kitty welcoming him. When it pans back to Levin, the restaurant set has been done away with and what remains suggests the dance hall. Anna and Vronsky's first dance is one of the most impressive moments of the film as it takes place in one whirling long take that dances with the actors. At one point, Vronsky twirls Anna into the air and the camera follows. When she finally comes back down to earth, the entire room is empty save for the two of them. But the visual brilliance is not only limited to the long takes. At one point Anna sits in her home waiting for Vronsky. Suddenly the lighting transitions from day to a blue hue to suggest night. The transition is seamless and unobtrusive in the experience. A picnic scene between Anna and Vronsky takes place in a real forest, but the overexposed and soft light suggests that this real setting is simply another construct of the theater. At another point in the film Karenin takes out a letter and rips it to shreds. He throws it into the air and the pieces snow down on him. This provides a transition for more snow to rain down and the subsequent cut to a wide shot adds an epic and stunning quality to the scene. The film is pregnant with incredible visuals and could require an entire essay to describe and analyze them.

The same goes for Dario Marianelli's phenomenal romantic score; another aspect of the film that deserves awards buzz. The music dominates the film and it is rare to find a moment where Marianelli's lush score is not present. But it is never overbearing to the drama and instead adds a symphonic element. One of the reasons for the music's effectiveness is the minimalism the composer employs within the romanticism. Melodic and lyrical sweep are in abundance, but Marianelli generally utilizes variations on the main theme, which takes on different moods, tempos, and even rhythms to match the moments. At one point it is an energetic waltz; then a child's music box; and at another moment it becomes a brooding adagio. The variation and invention makes the music of Anna Karenina unforgettable long after the experience has ended.

The costumes of Jacqueline Durran are also highly commendable. They not only recreate the period dress of 19th century Russian but also match the theater setting beautifully. However, the costumes are not merely a superficial aesthetic, but develop with the narrative. Anna's character dresses in colorful opulence at the start of the film but as she degenerates in her costumes, while still elegant, take on a darker complexion. While she argues with Vronsky in one scene, she is disheveled and her undergarments are in full view. This kind of attention to detail elevates what would usually be dismissed as vacuous style.

Melanie Oliver does a tremendous job of editing the entire piece together and maintains a propulsive feel throughout. At one point, Vronsky kisses Anna's hand and a massive explosion resounds in the sound mix. A man has just killed himself, but the editing suggests the ill-fated relationship that is about to blossom between the two. During the racing sequence in the middle of the film Anna waves herself with a fan. This generally banal action becomes the main focus of the scene as the sound of the flapping crescendos to not only create more tension but also to hint at Anna's state of mind.

Ultimately, Anna Karenina is a technical feast with some of the most incredible production design, editing, cinematography, and music of the year. Wright's concept of setting the film in a theater is a resounding success, but the film stumbles a bit in its main narrative. Fortunately, there is abundance of things to appreciate in the film and even if Anna never comes through as an admirable heroine, this film is a masterful piece of art. 

Other Film Reviews by David Salazar

Cloud Atlas Review

Argo Review

El Limpiador Review

The Sessions Review

Arbitrage Review

Trouble with the Curve Review 

The Master Review

 The Dark Knight Rises Review

 Seeking a Friend at the End of the World Review

 The Amazing Spiderman Review

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