Review: 'Anna Karenina' shines on every level

Tolstoy's masterpiece gets theatrical retelling

Published On: Nov 30 2012 10:11:00 AM CST
Keira Knightley, Anna Karenina movie still

If you're going to do a retelling of a novel that's been made into a film at least a dozen times before, you better come up with something different.

Well, director Joe Wright and playwright Tom Stoppard have done just that. Their "Anna Karenina" is a theatrical vision and a brilliant adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's revered book about a woman torn between true love and the mores of society. The movie, starring Keira Knightley as the adulteress aristocrat Anna Arkadyevna Karenina and Jude Law as her dull and pious husband, Count Alexei Karenin, gets a treatment that's original, sumptuous and, well, fresh -- let's say about as fresh as a movie about imperial Russia in 1874 can be.

Wright and Stoppard set this story on a stage in a Russian theater. While it takes a bit of getting used to, the action, at times, appears to be a play in progress, but then scenery shifts, people move and we're outdoors in a true wintry scene. In another scene, Anna is making her escape at the very top of the theater stage on a fly space. It can be dizzying and confusing, but like true theater you must submit to a willing suspension of disbelief.
Knightley is dazzling as Anna, mining the character and creating a leading lady that's rich with emotion. She wears her torment on her sleeve in much of the film, but, to her credit, never comes off as overly dramatic. This is truly the best performance yet from the English actress, and should garner her an Academy Award nomination.

Law doesn't fare as well. His Count, while he's meant to be righteous and a bit bland, never really rises to the occasion, and perhaps its Knightley's performance with all its emotion that makes his performance flat. Tolstoy's Count is also meant to be older than Anna, which also creates some of the strain between them, but Law doesn't seem to explore this in his character enough to have it be a conflict.

As Vronsky, the object of Anna's affection, English actor Aaron Taylor-Johnson's casting was a departure from the way the cavalry soldier is described by Tolstoy -- a "squarely built dark man with short cropped black hair." The filmmakers saw Vronsky differently, painting him as a fair haired, blue-eyed prince with the 21-year-old Johnson in the role. Johnson has been seen in a few films, but may be best known for showing off some amazing acrobatic moves as the lone star in last year's R.E.M. video "UBerlin" (he has dark hair in the video, by the way).

Running linearly to Anna's story is also the heartache of Konstantin Dmitrich Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), who struggles with the notion of true love after his marriage proposal is rejected by Kitty (Alicia Vikander).

Stoppard had a task of condensing 1,000-page book into a movie that's a little over two hours. Wright keeps "Anna Karenina" moving along at a clip and filmgoers will get caught up in the whirlwind. This is an epic film that doesn't rely on a marathon running time to get its point across.

Its lush cinematography by Seamus McGarvey, whose work was so rich in "The Avengers," and beautiful costume design by Jacqueline Durran (Knightley wears the clothes so well) adds yet another layer to the drama.

Tolstoy would no doubt approve of this glorious reimagining of his masterpiece.