Finally, a period piece that doesn't rely solely on costume design. Today, director Joe Wright's adaptation of Anna Karenina hits theaters, starring Keira Knightley as Anna, Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Count Vronsky, and Jude Law as Alexei Karenin. Viva Tolstoy!
This adaptation is visually ingenious, and clearly calls dibs on the Academy Award for Best Cinematography. Wright guides the audience through a kinetic mix of theatre and film, with actors moving between sets as theatrical style backgrounds are adjusted behind them. The novel's famous horse race tumbles into an orchestra pit. Anna walks from the warm stage glow of a Russian aristocratic ball into the messy backstage area where the Muscovite poor bustle around her. Alexei throws a torn-up letter into the air, and it floats back down as snow. If you are interested in the intersection between live theatre and cinema, this is the film for you.
And talk about a perfect gimmick for Tolstoy's classic novel! As the Russian Lit Masterminds know, swaths of the original book are about artifice, and the tricks beauty can play on people. The inventive staging literally calls these themes out, while taking the edge off the weighty plot and adding humor where even Tolstoy couldn't.
The humor part is important, because Anna and Count Vronsky are definitely in the running for most self-involved and insufferable literary couple of all time. Don't get us wrong: Tolstoy was onto something with these entitled maniacs. As the endearing farmer Levin says, "Romantic love will be the last delusion of the old order." Anna and Vronsky's love is a reckless, terrifying, utterly delusional adventure, a story of rich people failing to understand their own riches on a number of levels. This story, when set against the backdrop of the dying Russian aristocracy, crackles like a firework, and aren't literary explosives just the best?
Knightley and Taylor-Johnson, both of whom are obscenely foxy, act the heck out of their characters' wild affair. Law is a merciless tearjerker as Karenin, a man who knows exactly what he's losing. Tom Stoppard's fingerprints are all over the screenplay, down to the fact that the movie is at least a half hour too long, and drags a lot in the middle. Stoppard is a legend, but that doesn't excuse him from needing an editor.
The greatest thing about Anna Karenina is that Anna and Vronsky are so unsympathetic that, at the risk of sounding utterly callous, the tragedy doesn't affect the audience. In this way, the movie is less a romance and more a horror story, with the viewer watching a horrible little machine that is set into motion. Conversely, the deeply relatable story of Levin and Kitty helps to buoy the plot, so that it doesn't sink completely into Depressing-Land. But skewering your central protagonists while making an astute political point?
That's some grade-A Tolstoy.
Will you see Anna Karenina?