Literary historical costume dramas: They’re all over theaters, especially during the awards-baiting fall and winter months. They fill their casts with great actors, place them in meticulously decorated rooms and give them the words of the world’s greatest writers to speak.
Also: A whole lot of them suck.
All right, perhaps that’s a touch hyperbolic; craft and care ooze from the pores of such productions. Yet filmmakers often handle these timeless stories as if they were fragile antiques, at risk of breaking if too much intensity is applied to them. Viewers, in turn, can’t be blamed for approaching them much like cinematic medicine, something to be abstractly admired rather than genuinely and thoroughly enjoyed as vibrant, living works of art.
For his new adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, director Joe Wright gambles big time. The basic story is likely familiar to generations of college comp-lit students, focusing on the titular Anna (Keira Knightley), wife of government minister Karenin (Jude Law) in 1874 imperial Russia. Anna begins a passionate affair with the soldier Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) that threatens to destroy her standing in society. Meanwhile, the simple landowner and farmer Konstantin Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) attempts to woo his lovely heart’s desire, Kitty (Alicia Vikander).
The basic raw material of Tolstoy’s text is all there in Tom Stoppard’s adapted screenplay; it’s how Wright envisions it that makes it so unusually compelling. For this Anna Karenina is served up with a proscenium—much of the story is presented as though it were part of a theatrical production, complete with painted backdrops, dramatic lighting cues and sequences in which the characters themselves are viewing events as though they were spectators at a play. But even that doesn’t fully capture the self-awareness at work, because Wright also shows us the crew at work, as well, whether operating machinery in the rafters backstage or setting up props and tables.
Wright’s conceit might have felt like contrivance, but it almost never does. On a pragmatic level, the interplay between obvious artifice and the story’s drama gives it a jolt of new energy, reminding us that the power in Tolstoy’s narrative isn’t found in the minutia of costumes and exotic locations. Yet, it also underscores key thematic material, particularly the notion that the various indiscretions at play in the text—not just Anna’s, but also the philandering of her brother, Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen, Mr. Darcy opposite Knightley’s Elizabeth in Wright’s 2005 Pride & Prejudice)—become more about maintaining a surface appearance for the world than the reality of people’s actions. And the work of the peasant/stagehands becomes the practical labor supporting the farcical pretense at morality by the nobility.
That’s not to say that Stoppard and Wright only make Anna Karenina work as an abstract exercise in literary analysis. There’s an absolutely lovely scene in which Levin—already rejected once in his pursuit of Kitty—meets with her again over a word-guessing game involving wooden blocks. As both timid souls attempt to make clear their feelings while fearing what the other might feel, the simple attempt at courtship unfolds with raw, soaring emotion—and punches home Tolstoy’s notion that “the heart wants what it wants” should have consequences that love with honor doesn’t.
Anna Karenina is so effective, for a time, at undercutting the grand melodrama of its central triangle that it’s a huge letdown when it actually starts to wallow in that melodrama. Knightley can be a solidly effective actress, but she doesn’t seem to know how to play Anna’s tormented attempts to break from Karenin and build a socially sanctioned new life with Vronsky. The third act dips into overwrought confrontations, cranking up the sense of supreme emotional consequence at exactly the time we should be questioning whether Anna deserves the happiness she seeks.
But whatever flaws there may be in Knightley’s performance, she can’t dampen the potency of Wright’s best moments employing his approach: the solitary first dance between Anna and Vronsky; the military horse race at which Anna first exposes her feelings to the world; the stunning final shot. Anna Karenina proves how much theatrical vitality you can find in 150-year-old books, if you know how to make an audience fascinated by what you’re going to show them when the curtain rises.
Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson