“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. Except when they’re statues.” It’s just possible that’s what British director Joe Wright is trying to say in his spectacularly wacked-out new interpretation of Tolstoy’s classic tale of love gone wrong.
Because characters turn into statues a lot in this picture. Events frequently unfold within the space of a proscenium arch, only to spill out a moment later into a studio set or, once in a while, into the natural world. It’s possible the filmmaker is addressing themes related to art and illusion, but there’s one thing I’m sure of: If Baz Luhrmann and Wes Anderson had a baby (and, in the hyperstylized universe Wright creates here, that wouldn’t even qualify as weird), this movie is precisely how it would look.
Anna Karenina is one of those important, repeatedly adapted stories that — let’s be honest — today’s average moviegoer doesn’t really want to get within a mile of. It hardly matters that the cast includes megawatt names such as Keira Knightley and Jude Law; that the screenplay is the work of the great playwright Tom Stoppard; or that Wright previously filled a respectable number of seats with high-toned screen versions of Pride and Prejudice (2005) and Atonement (2007). In the age of Honey Boo Boo, 19th-century Russian literature is a hard sell.
My theory is that it was precisely this observation that inspired the filmmaker to go hog wild with art direction. Unless I miss my guess, this is the first motion picture in which a director uses eye-poppingly bizarro visuals to distract his audience while he sneaks it a dose of art.
I had limited interest in watching Knightley portray a pampered St. Petersburg aristocrat who disgraces her blowhard husband (Law) by having an affair with a young count played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson. But, as ho-hum as the whole wasn’t society a drag back when there were rules business proves at times, it’s impossible to find the proceedings less than captivating. Wright and production designer Sarah Greenwood concoct such an outré cavalcade of brilliantly original touches that the viewer winds up on high alert, eager to discover what they’ll come up with next.
And one of the greatest surprises, for many, will be just how entertaining and ultimately moving the story itself becomes in these hands. Stoppard has masterfully reduced the novel’s thousand or so pages to their essentials and brought a secondary romance to the forefront, with satisfying results. Previous adaptations have paid far less attention to the slow-boil attraction between the idealistic landowner Levin (Domhnall Gleeson — Brendan’s boy) and Princess Kitty (Alicia Vikander), the Moscow beauty whom Count Vronsky tosses aside for the title character. In Wright’s retelling, the arc of that couple is afforded a weight nearly equal to that of Anna’s doomed dalliance, and the adjustment in focus takes possible a final act with unexpected uplift.
The performances in Anna Karenina are aces across the board. Following her turn as Carl Jung’s sadomasochistic patient in A Dangerous Method, Knightley continues to carve a niche as the go-to diva to play emotionally unstable love slaves. Taylor-Johnson hits all the right notes in a role that’s more complex than it might initially seem. And Law tells you everything you need to know about life in the male-dominated Russian oligarchy when he pronounces it “time for bed” and whips out seriously creepy protection.
Did I mention the model train? That’s right: The filmmaker made the decision to substitute a miniature toy version for the story’s fateful locomotive. I’d be guessing again if I tried to suggest why. But I can say with total certainty that, Russian lit fan or not, you’ll be glad you got on board.