Anna Karenina: 'Theatrical,' but in a different sort of way

Feb 7, 2013

The Kalamazoo Film Society will screen the film Anna Karenina starring Keira Knightly and Jude Law this weekend at The Little Theater on WMU's campus.

It was Shakespeare who told us that all the world's a stage and all the men and women merely players. But in his adventurous adaptation of Anna Karenina, director Joe Wright applies that idea to Leo Tolstoy's venerable tale of social scandal, domestic discord and tragic train trips in 19th century Russia.

Of course, Anna Karenina has been filmed dozens of times. In fact, Greta Garbo played the title role in two different versions. It wouldn't seem there were any new twists to put on the story. But Wright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard have refashioned the material into something vividly theatrical and elegantly offbeat. From the very beginning, we see the characters moving through various stages while backdrops rise and fall and opulent set pieces travel behind them. The challenge for Wright and his cast is to give this flamboyantly fake world a real emotional core, to show us a genuine heart beating beneath the glitz and glamor.

The movie re-teams Wright with Keira Knightley, who starred in his acclaimed Atonement in 2007 and Pride and Prejudice in 2005. Both of those films provided a substantial career boost for Knightley, who was on the verge of being dismissed as nothing more than a pretty face after her success in the Pirates of the Caribbean blockbusters. As Anna, a married noblewoman whose infatuation with the charming Count Vronsky leads her into a dangerous and destructive affair, Knightley finds Anna's tenderness and vulnerability. Even as she is possessed by passion, there's always a hint of uncertainty and apprehension waiting just around the corner. She realizes precisely how high the cost could be if she follows her impulses and turns against a male-dominated world. "I would never see my son again," she says. "The laws are made by fathers and husbands."

As Anna's husband, Jude Law skillfully avoids making the obvious choices or playing him as a blatant bad guy. Law makes certain we feel the agony of watching someone you love slowly slip into the arms of someone else while you stand by, completely powerless to change your fate. At the same time, Aaron Taylor-Johnson doesn't permit Vronsky to become a bland dreamboat, giving him the kind of fearlessness that's often immediately attractive, even though anyone with much experience in love would know it should be a warning sign instead.

As always, Wright has paid attention to all sorts of meticulous details, such as the way the sound of Anna's fluttering lacy fan echoes the hoofbeats of the race horses she's watching, or how she frequently dresses in white to conceal the darkness she feels in her soul.

While this may not be the most heartbreaking telling of Anna Karenina, it's visually ravishing and well deserving of its Academy Award nominations for Jacqueline Durran's splendid costumes, Seamus McGarvey's glorious cinematography, Dario Marinelli's score and the exquisite production design of Sarah Greenwood and Katie Spencer.