Joe Wright has directed a version of Anna Karenina that is as lush as Leo Tolstoy’s book, but it is a vision of the iconic work that is completely unexpected.
Keira Knightley stars as the title character, a nineteenth century Russian woman who marries for privilege and money, then begins to slowly regret it as she meets a dashing military officer (Aaron Taylor Johnson). Her husband (Jude Law) is not having any of it and makes her life a tad challenging to say the least.
Jude Law astounds in a performance that is equally steely and sentimental. It caps off a year that found him pushing boundaries with Contagion. Law's portrayal of Karenin is so rooted in the morays of the day. Feudal Russia has not yet embraced Marx and the Czars and their royal families are still living the high life, but as seen in Anna Karenina, they are not necessarily happy. Law handles the duties of portraying an individual who resides in such a time with Oscar-worthy grace.
Knightley astounds as a woman who in public appears to be right where she wants to be at every moment. Yet through Knightley's layered portrayal of the literary legend, her deeper character vastness emerges within Wright's world. She yearns for more than the imperial four walls she shares with her husband. Russia is made to feel like the center of the universe in Anna Karenina and it is clear that the title character seeks to be in the middle of all of it. As everyone knows who has tried to do it all, you cannot.
As shown in this Anna Karenina trailer, what sets the film apart is how the director and his cinematographer Seamus McGarvey have literally set their landscape borrowing from the Shakespeare line that all the world’s a stage. For almost eighty-percent of the film, it feels like the most lavishly filmed Broadway or West End produced production of all-time. And we salute Wright for taking that kind of unique angle on telling a story that has been told hundreds of times.
Yet, Wright abandons that set modus operandi deep in the third act and showcases the full expanse of the Russian landscape to his audience. How did we go from a horse race that we see is awkwardly staged in a theater to the wilds of snow-adorned rural Russia? At that point, the audience is so engrossed in this Tolstoy-imagined journey that the sudden shift in tone is easy to forgive while so lost in its beauty.
The cast rises to the occasion of portraying characters that have been revered by audiences for centuries. Yes, Knightley deserves some Oscar love, so too does Law… but also the mind-blowing work of Johnson should not be ignored. He portrays the playboy military officer Vronsky, who has his way with the world until he meets Anna. Once he meets her, Johnson begins a slow journey towards train wreck that is astounding in the hands of the UK actor and star who excelled in Oliver Stone's latest, as we note in our Savages review.
Our Anna Karenina review can unequivocally state that Wright has given an old story new life. He also gets his actors to put on a clinic with rich dialogue and equally lush landscapes… both theatrical and natural.