All the world’s a stage in Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina. Set in a theatre and bursting out into ravishing landscapes and stately interiors, it’s a daring device deliberately depicting the artificial world of the Russian aristocracy. It’s a risky approach that’s bound to alienate many. But go with it and it’s a sublime experience with more memorable moments in a minute than many modern film-makers manage in a career.
Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley) is married to the coolly conservative Count Alexei Karenin (Jude Law). Supportive of a friend whose husband has recently been unfaithful, Anna finds her own head turned by the dashing Count Vronsky (Aaron Johnson) the suitor of ingénue Kitty (Alicia Vikander). Before long, Anna’s dancing to the Vronksy beat and causing a massive stir, alienating Kitty and the rest of society. Outcast and risking the loss of her children and her good name, will it have a happy ending?
Everything in Anna Karenina hinges on Joe Wright’s quirky take. With a sinewy script from Tom Stoppard, Tolstoy’s story is all there. But this is no traditional period piece. It’s Baz Luhrmann for the Downton Abbey set. It’s a musical without songs. It’s a postmodern, almost ironic experience with camped up humour – Matthew Macfadyen as the buffoon-cum-adulterer Oblonsky – and myriad stylised touches.
Dancers freeze in time and come to life as Anna and Vronsky whisk past them, a steam train pulls into a station then into the theatre stalls. A horse race thunders across the stage. Workers in a golden field scythe in synchronised motion. And a thousand other images and movements fill the cinema screen.
Come Oscar time, it’s a safe bet that Anna Karenina will win for best production design and costume. Maybe even for best director. And rightly so. But it’s unlikely to yield any best actors. Not because the performances are poor but because they take second place. The agony and the ecstasy are largely in the symbolism on show.
So Keira’s critics are baulked. Her seeming lack of range and her crystalline fragility are perfectly suited to Joe Wright’s approach and to the head-turned character of Anna. He’s got the best out of her before - Pride and Prejudice, Atonement - and does so again. Interestingly, it’s the adulterer characters that are the ciphers. The true-hearted lovers - Kitty and her unshakeable suitor Levin, Anna’s wronged friend Dolly - all go through the wringer for real.
Two images – a horse-fall and the result of a train accident – may be hard for some to watch. But otherwise, Anna Karenina is an exquisite film, endlessly inventive and beautifully composed. Wright and Stoppard even remember the magic of the miniature: a surreptitious declaration of love is sweetly expressed through a children’s alphabet set.
But will it succeed? A fat Russian novel about adultery. A costume drama with Keira Knightley. Sounds like a turn-off for many. And even for those turned-on, will the fluid fireworks be too much? To both audiences: give it a go. Anna Karenina is a fantastic piece of cinema in all senses of the word.