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For nearly a century now, filmmakers have tried their hand at adapting Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy’s beloved romantic tragedy Anna Karenina to the silver screen, to varying degrees of success. Producer David O. Selznick’s 1935 American version with Greta Garbo is generally regarded as the finest of the cinematic Annas, although any translation of Tolstoy’s superlative prose to celluloid necessarily feels like a diminishment. Furthermore, period costume dramas adapted from canonical literary sources are a prime spawning ground for this-then-that roteness. Over-reliance on narrative familiarity and opulent design have defeated many an adaptation, from Jack Clayton’s anesthetized The Great Gatsby (1974) to Billie August’s forgettable Les Misérables (1998).
Fortunately, “rote” is the one adjective that does not describe British director Joe Wright’s glittering, eccentric version of Anna Karenina. Part of the film’s success lies in the graceful screenplay by playwright Tom Stoppard, who works almost every significant character, subplot, and theme from Tolstoy’s novel into 130 minutes that, improbably, never seemed overstuffed. However, what makes this latest Anna dazzle is not its fidelity to the novel or its lavish recreation of Imperial Russia, but its sheer inventiveness. Wright stages much of the film’s action on an actual stage, complete with painted canvas backdrops and extras shrugging into costumes during choreographed scene changes. Through clever editing and a bit of CGI conjuration, characters move from sumptuous ballrooms to train stations awash in confetti snow merely by passing through doorways or taking backstage shortcuts.
The film never approaches the swooning lunacy of, say, Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge!, but, then, Anna Karenina is just following an unexpected set of rules, not striving to re-write them. In the past, Wright has been guilty of senseless excess—recall Atonement’s tracking shot of the Dunkirk beaches—but here his flamboyancy has a method. The glaring seams of theatrical fakery in Anna Karenina’s aristocratic parlors highlight the czarist obsession with appearances and roles that eventually dooms the titular heroine. (Tellingly, this artifice melts away when the action shifts to the Russian countryside.) However, while Wright’s film might operate according to stage logic, it’s rarely stagey, and in its best moments it exploits its medium to exhilarating effect.
The film is aided by a multitude of excellent performances, especially Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s smoldering portrayal of Anna’s lover Vronksy and Matthew Macfadyen’s droll, faintly sad turn as Anna’s brother Oblonsky. The film’s keystone is, of course, Anna herself, played splendidly by Wright’s perennial muse, Keira Knightley. The role is tailored for the actress’ signature attributes as a physical performer, such as her disarmingly school-girlish overbite grin and the peerless way that she conveys woozy, stunned anguish. It’s a rich and generous portrayal, and one that smoothly serves the film’s multi-faceted story of moral confusion. Ultimately, what’s so gratifying about Wright’s Anna Karenina is not the fact of its stylistic curlicues, but the way that its flourishes buttress the throbbing question at the heart of Tolstoy’s tale: Is it possible to be both good and happy?