Anna Karenina – Wright and Knightley team-up again to create something first class…

Following on from the incredible action-packed Hanna, director Joe Wright has gone back to the historical drama roots he’s already shown us he’s more than capable of doing (the amazing Atonement and Pride & Prejudice). This time he’s directed his own version of Anna Karenina, scripted by the brilliant Tom Stoppard.

In late 19th Century Russia, Anna (Keira Knightley) is married to wealthy Russian government official Alexei Karenin (Jude Law). Although their marriage is passionless, she has a son she loves, which is enough to keep her happy. On one trip to visit her brother Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen) and kerb his unfaithful ways, she happens to meet Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) who is everything her husband is not: young, spontaneous, a risk-taker. Anna knows if she does succumb to anything though, she will be exiled from all those in society that hold her in high regard…

Wright’s version of Anna Karenina is visually stunning and amazingly constructed, the majority of the film taking place within an actual theatre setting. All parts of the theatre are used: at times the main stage is the setting for the high society scenes, while the rafters act as the squalid streets at one point. And when you see scenes in which a huge train station has been constructed inside the theatre, you can’t help but have your breath taken away. At only a few moments are we shown a genuine outdoor setting – the blissful countryside, in comparison to the horrid garishness and fake society structure of the cities. Sets also blend into one another sometimes, transforming before our eyes in a single long take as characters walk a few steps from one scene to the next and the new set is constructed while we watch. This whole visual idea takes a bit of getting used to, disorienting you at first. But once you throw yourself into the film the beauty of this idea truly works. Certain scenes even play out like a beautifully choreographed dance.

Keira Knightly is reliable (and not as pouty as usual) and emotionally affecting as the torn Anna, wanting to stay with her husband for the sake of her child, but also wanting to live the life she’s always wanted with the Count. Aaron Taylor-Johnson is good as the passionate Vronsky, but becomes a little too OTT and caddish at some points (and is just a few steps away from twirling his moustache). Jude Law is also good as Karenin; stiff and emotionless, even when trying to win his wife back. The one standout of the film for me though is actually Domhnall Gleeson as Levin; a poor, young farm owner who desperately wants to marry Kitty (Alicia Vikander) who he has fallen in love with, but who herself is tragically hoping to seek the favour of someone else. Gleeson is convincing and heartbreaking at times as the young man who seems destined to never fit in to high society. For this reason Levin’s story is also a nice counterbalance to Anna’s story and shows love again being thwarted, this time for a different reason.

There will obviously be a few people who don’t warm to Karenina, mostly those who find the idea of a period drama, even one as visually stunning as this, dull and uninvolving. But for everyone else this film is a treat. There are amazing set-pieces throughout, especially one involving a first dance between the Count and Anna, and also an incredible horse race – both are completely gripping to watch, beautiful, and well-choreographed. Anna Karenina is never slow-moving due to the expertly paced structure created by Stoppard and also because of the constantly changing scenery. It is on occasion drily funny, something that is a characteristic of a Stoppard script.  The performances are all great and the idea of the main theatre setting is incredibly bold, but it works well under Wright’s expert direction. And Joe Wright is indeed proving himself to be one of Britain’s finest directors around today.

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~ by square-eyed-geek on October 7, 2012.

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