How do you breath life into the withered lungs of a period piece that has been told time and time again? If you’re “Anna Karenina” director Joe Wright you honor Leo Tolstoy’s book while staging the story of deception, honor and love at the intersection where reality and fantasy cross.
Russian writer Leo Tolstoy’s classic story of love, honor and deceit in 1974 Imperialist Russia begins with a family in tatters because of marital transgression. St. Petersburg aristocrat and socialite Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley) travels to Moscow to visit her womanizing brother Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen) and his long-suffering wife Dolly (Kelly Macdonald). Her council saves their marriage but the trip proves to be the undoing of hers. She becomes smitten with the affluent Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a handsome military man and begins a torrid affair. Soon, however, she discovers that her indiscretion isn’t as easily dismissed as her brother’s.
The story itself is rather simple and has been told many times, what distinguishes this version, aside from the cast (more on that later), is the sumptuous staging. Every frame of the film drips with beauty, from the sets to the clothes to Knightley’s cheekbones. But that’s to be expected from a big retelling of the story. What really captures the eye–and the mind–is the unconventional way Wright has chosen to tell the tale.
The film opens on what appears to be a stage production of “Anna Karenina.” We see musicians, dancing and backstage activity. To further blur the line between reality and illusory we see Anna, Oblonsky and others going about their day. Imagine watching the “Anna Karenina” opera and you get the idea.
It is a brilliant piece of staging for a story that has enough passion and tragedy for two operas. More importantly the style doesn’t overwhelm the substance. The baroque tone established early on sets the stage, literally, for screenwriter Tom Stoppard’s sweeping story of betrayal, forgiveness and death. It is an epic but human story about the best and worst of behavior.
Leading the cast Knightley proves a natural for period pieces. She has a face meant to be framed by fur hats and veils but apart from looking the part she carefully modulates Anna’s descent from socialite to outcast with grace and dignity while allowing notes of frustration and misery to seep through.
Knightley has the showiest role but Jude Law also makes an impression despite showing considerable restraint in his take on Anna’s beleaguered husband Alexei Karenin.
Decked out in blonde curly hair Aaron Taylor-Johnson is almost unrecognizable from his best known role, playing John Lennon in “Nowhere Boy,” but as Count Vronsky he convincingly plays a confident man who allows self-gratification to ruin his life and Anna’s.
A lighter note is supplied by Matthew Macfadyen, whose élan and rakish charm turns the womanizing Oblonsky into one of the film’s high spots.
“Anna Karenina” is a grand film, both in story and style.