Yes, “Anna Karenina,” Leo Tolstoy’s beloved mega-novel of love and revolution, is being adapted once again (by our count this is the twelfth big-screen version), this time by Academy Award-winning screenwriter Tom Stoppard and big-time director Joe Wright. Here, Keira Knightley stars in the title role, with Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Kelly Macdonald tagging along for support.
So is there anything new and fresh that can be brought to this property, or will you be having violent flashbacks of falling asleep in your Russian literature class in college? Below, we happily give you the answer.
PRO: It’s Drop-Dead Gorgeous
The first thing you should know about this version of “Anna Karenina” is that it looks like a play. Wright, taken with the theatrical nature of the material (and the potentially cost-prohibitive nature of the story’s scope), decided to set the film on a stage, literally (almost the entire film was shot on a single soundstage in England). It’s a budgetary concession that turns out to be an artistic triumph; equal parts Baz Luhrmann and Dogma 95. Wright, no stranger to virtuosic camera moves (see the beach-side shot from “Atonement,” the ballroom sequence in “Pride and Prejudice” or pretty much all of “Hanna’), doesn’t let this hamper him — the camera slides off the stage and goes into where the audience would be, it swoops up into the rafters and dives into the basement. It’s fun watching the actors deal with their almost balletic relationship to the camera, and to hear Dario Marianelli’s score take on a similarly dramatic movement. Even if you’ve seen “Anna Karenina” umpteen times, I assure you, you’ve never, ever seen it like this.
CON: The Visuals Sometimes Tire (And Confuse)
In the opening sequences, the “rules” of this production are very much laid out: they’re on a stage, or they’re off the stage but still in the building. But as the movie rolls along, these rules are bent and then broken, which is even more disorienting than having the whole thing set on a stage to begin with. You can’t blame Wright for wanting some flexibility with his conceptual framework, but sometimes it actively cuts into the dramatic and emotional flow of the film. Happily, there is enough awesomeness that this slight offense gets off without a warning.
PRO: The Cast…
I’ll admit a certain amount of trepidation when I heard that Wright was returning to the period piece landscape he had already mined (beautifully) in previous films, and not the hellzapoppin’, hyper-modern zippiness of “Hanna” (especially since Wright would be casting his muse, Keira Knightley, who starred in “Pride & Prejudice” and “Atonement,” but whose career since has been uneven at best). However, I was very, very wrong, particularly when it came to Keira. In what is arguably her best performance this side of Tony Scott’s terminally underrated “Domino,” Knightley absolutely enraptures. She is beautiful, luminescent, conflicted and, above all, human. As the center of what is something of a small-scale spectacle, it could have been easy to lose her waifish figure in the clutter. Instead, she stands out as the movie’s big, beating heart. But Keira isn’t alone in her excellence, with Jude Law (continuing his return to glory following “Contagion”), the pleasurably goofy Matthew Macfayden (in what should be a star-making turn), a sweet Kelly Macdonald, and Domhnall Gleeson, all performing beautifully.
CON: … Save For Aaron Taylor-Johnson
Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who played a defunct superhero in “Kick-Ass” and starred in this summer’s regrettable drug world thriller “Savages,” seems too young and too inexperienced to be the object of Keira Knightley’s lustful desire. Thankfully, Keira does the heavy (emotional) lifting and you still get hopelessly, tearfully sucked in. However, a more distinguished actor could have probably sold it better.
PRO: Jude Law’s Thinning Hair
It’s pretty incredible and, after his “Contagion” snaggletooth, the second time in two years that he has gone out of his way to grotesque himself up, which is the sign of a truly great actor, and not just a really pretty movie star. (Ask Johnny Depp — he’s made quite the career out of it!)
PRO: It’s Emotionally Involving
With something this stylistically embroidered, the emotional core of the movie — a woman torn between two men in politically turbulent times — still registers. What’s more, it envelops you. And as much as you goggle at the visuals, you are more moved by its sentiment. A friend of mine sent me a text today that said: “Top ten moments in ‘Anna Karenina’ that gave you Goosebumps, go!” And the (text) conversation went on for a very long time after that.
CON: The Movie Really Should Have Ended With A Closed Curtain
This is not technically a spoiler, but, like “Moulin Rouge” and “Sucker Punch” (why are those my two examples?), “Anna Karenina” opens with curtains parting and the “play” beginning, but doesn’t end with curtains pulling to a close. Instead, it’s a particularly haunting image (that I won’t give away, because I’m not a jerk) and a fade to black. It’s not exactly a “disappointing” conclusion, but it is sort of a bummer that the play doesn’t end in the way you’d think it would.
RELATED: Keira Knightley On “Anna Karenina” And Corsets