Story: Czarist Russia in the 1850s. Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley), the wife of a high government official (Jude Law), strikes up an affair with a dashing young cavalry captain (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). However, nineteenth-century Russian society – not to mention the law – does not look kindly at such frivolities.
One could be forgiven for thinking that Joe Wright is a show-off. Staging Anna Karenina in a theater and all. To actually adapt one of the great novels of the nineteenth century and setting most of its scenes – including a horse race with living, breathing horses! – in a theater. Fortunately, Wright has admitted that this was actually a necessity: using a multitude of ‘normal’ sets and real locations would have been too expensive.
Fortunately, also, Wright (Pride and Prejudice, Atonement, Hanna) uses his theatrical setting very effectively. Without it being said by any character, it is very clear to what extent society life in czarist Russia was a matter of acting, of sticking to the script, of knowing very well the important differences between on stage and behind the scenes. Wright thus sticks to that most important of film truisms: show, don’t tell. If Wright is showing off, at least he is not telling us off.
Wright’s signature is the long take. The long take in which the camera follows James McAvoy strolling down a hellish Dunkirk beach in Atonement. Or the long take in which it follows Eric Bana through a Berlin train station, being assulted by thugs, in Hanna. In Anna Karenina there are again many of such long takes. The most beautiful one follows Keira Knightley and Aaron Taylor-Johnson while they dance for the first time. They twist and twirl while – around them – other pairs of dancers freeze and unfreeze. This scene, much like the whole first half hour, appears to be not so much directed as choreographed. And the camera dances along. A stunning feat. And if it wasn’t so effective in sharing with the audience the excitement and emotion of falling in love, one would be forgiven for saying that Joe Wright is just showing off.
After that fabulous first half-hour – probably the best half hour of cinema of this year – the narrative and the camera necessarily slow down to show the destruction of Anna Karenina’s character in painful detail. Keira Knightley – although still scarily thin – is very good. So is Taylor-Johnson. But the real stars of this film are Jude Law as the cold but loving Karenin and Domhnall Gleeson as Levin – a young aristocrat whose romantic fortunes are directly (if unintentedly) influenced by Karenina’s.
As the story moves on, meandering its way through the life of (perhaps a few too many) Russian aristocrats, one cannot help but yearning for an twist of luck or an easy way out for the characters. But Tolstoy’s novel offers no easy escapes or happy endings. We must and shall witness the unhappiness that love brings about. Director Wright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard succeed admirably in rendering Tolstoy very old-fashioned morale code relevant and sensible to modern audiences.
Final verdict: Anna Karenina might not be for everyone. But then, so is the novel on which it is based. It is a stunning piece of work by a director on the top of his game and a cast devoted to the material and the director’s vision. For all the shiny surfaces it can boast about, its major achievement is making the (admittedly) dusty morale of the story completely believable.