“Anna Karenina” rewires Tolstoy’s classic tale of marriage-wrecking, reputation-ruining passion into a streamlined, sexy and playfully satirical 21st-century design. It’s an eye-popping marriage of artifice and heart.
Painfully beautiful Keira Knightley suffers radiantly as the doomed, adulterous Russian aristocrat. Joe Wright, who directed her in “Pride and Prejudice” and “Atonement,” clearly adores those regal cheekbones and swanlike neck, lighting and costuming her to brilliant effect. Jude Law triumphs against type as her cold-fish husband, Alexi. As Vronsky, her shallow cavalry officer lover, Aaron Taylor-Johnson is all dash and dazzle, to the points of his waxed mustache tips. Tom Stoppard’s scalpel-sharp script is a masterpiece of compression, ingeniously compacting 900 pages of realist drama into a swirl of dazzling language and high-brow, low-key wit.
The film originally was conceived as a realist piece to be shot in Russia, but then half the budget fell away. It was good fortune in disguise. In a stroke of showman’s genius, Wright reconceived the production like a theater piece, setting most of the action inside an old stage and presenting the story through stylized theatrical stagecraft.
When lovers embrace, the lights rise. When trains are called for, there are locomotives at railway platforms, but also scale-model children’s toys. The bustle of extras implies the entire power structure of cabinet ministers, socialites, military popinjays, dowagers and lackeys. Wright makes the production mechanics transparent.
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When the chorus changes the scenery, it’s part of the show. It’s a wonderful metaphor for the mind-set of decadent pre-revolutionary Russia, where all the world’s a stage and every social interchange is frosted with role-playing and artifice. When Wright emphasizes the walls pressing in on Anna, he’s showing us how she feels about her constrained life as a starchy top bureaucrat’s wife. His propulsively edited version of the story’s centerpiece horse race is inspired.
Stoppard and Wright have trimmed away every aspect of the story unrelated to love. That simplifies Tolstoy’s epic drama, allowing them to restore a side story other film adaptations have shortchanged.
Newcomer Domhnall Gleeson plays Levin, a goodhearted farm landowner who was Tolstoy’s idealized Christian moralist vision of himself. His romance with wellborn Kitty (“A Royal Affair’s” lusty queen, Alicia Vikander), who at first seems fickle and unattainable, is a warm counterpoint to the volcanic Anna-Vronsky tragedy. Gleeson, an unassuming fellow with carrot-orange hair, is no match for plump-lipped Taylor-Johnson. Unlike Anna, Kitty realizes that the best foundation for long-lasting love isn’t good looks but good values.