Published Nov 29, 2012
Though Joe Wright's adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's widely acclaimed staple, Anna Karenina, is a work of theatricality, complete with curtains, stages and swirling choreographed performers, it's still very much a film.
Unlike the theatrically melodramatic works of Baz Luhrmann and Rob Marshall, Wright's experimental subjectivity understands the narrow audience gaze and the power of forced perspective and juxtaposition, using style and structure to fill in the many thematic and conceptual gaps inevitable when trying to adapt a work of such complexity and scope.
As such, most of the secondary narrative, featuring the somewhat idealist-thinking Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), is presented more so in the manner in which Anna Karenina's (Keira Knightley) story of passion and infidelity is told. Still, Levin, a landowner, provides some external perspective and context on the theatrical, performance-based elements of Karenina's life, stepping away from the action when her brother's sister-in-law, Kitty (Alicia Vikander), rejects his marriage proposal.
This act is a literal stepping away from the seemingly enclosed theatre of society, complete with an opening of doors and an embrace of natural light, where Anna suffers persecution at the hands of her fellow socialites after embracing a romantic affair with the affluent Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Her husband, Karenin (Jude Law), similarly operates under the veil of love, reminding his wife of the consequences of her public flirtations with another man.
But amidst the intricate drama and endless examples of hypocrisy floating around the many players, the workers buzz in unison, creating soundtrack and heightened visual elements in their duties, even freezing in tableau to heighten the performed significance of the social elite. This aesthetic presentation of modernist political stances ― compounding ideas of greed, elitism and fulfilled wants― ultimately stands in for the rich political discourse (as well as it can) that Levin and Anna's characters represented and contemplated in the novel, only updated for current relevance and context.
Moreover, the handling of passion and the death thereof, where the excitement of romance wears off and the notion of love is stifled by repression and isolation when Anna and Vrodsky are forced to the social periphery, are quite intense and powerful, being anchored by Knightley's robust performance.
Even the quiet moments, such as one where Levin and Kitty spell out their feelings for each other through acronyms, have the power of stillness, are juxtaposed smartly with Wright's visual flourishes and lyrical sensibilities.
Even though this bold cinematic experiment is messy, at times, having some pacing issues due to sheer stylistic abandon, Anna Karenina is a compelling, brave work that is as indulgent as it is intelligent. While sure to anger cinematic purists, it would be hard to refute the intriguing, risky nature of this work and its desire to push the boundaries of a versatile medium.