‘Anna Karenina” won the Oscar for best costume design this year, and like many a period literary adaptation, you might assume the frocks and greatcoats are the main attraction, the “value added” to what is necessarily a leaner version of an epic novel. Certainly director Joe Wright, who filmed Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” in 2005, knows the drill.
For his adaptation of Leo Tolstoy, though, Wright opts for a quite different approach, setting nearly all the action in a theater, on what are clearly constructed, highly stylized sets; we even see the extras changing costumes backstage as they move from scene to scene. Only when he moves out into the vast Russian steppes does Wright use some actual location shots. (Which certainly accents the difference Tolstoy himself drew between the self-absorbed cities versus the God-given natural world.)
Wright’s reasoning here was that life in the Russian aristocratic society of the late 19th century was conducted so publicly, and with so much artifice, it was essentially theater. You could probably say that about celebrity life in any era, including our own, so it’s slightly fuzzy reasoning, but the results certainly feel fresh. I might be off-base here, but Wright has spent some time in India — researching a film that never came to fruition, and with his musician wife Anoushka Shankar — and it feels like a bit of Bollywood glitz, that tendency to take a scene’s set design well over the top, has seeped into his bloodstream. Or it could be a Brechtian ploy; take your pick.
Wright returns for the third time to his leading lady Keira Knightley (“Pride and Prejudice,” “Atonement”), who follows in the footsteps of greats such as Greta Garbo and Vivian Leigh in playing Tolstoy’s tragic heroine. Knightley’s certainly up to the task, bringing flirtatious charm to Anna the happily-married socialite and becomingly convincingly unhinged as she finds herself consumed by her passion for the caddish Count Vronsky. She’s also never looked more ravishing.
Jude Law puts in a quiet, nuanced turn as Anna’s cuckolded husband, the career-focused politician Karenin, while Matthew Macfadyen comes up with an almost Python-esque take on Anna’s philandering brother, Oblonsky. Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Vrosnky is so ridiculously dashing that he’s taken some flak for it in reviews, but vapid good looks seem to be the point here.
A tight screenplay by playwright Tom Stoppard extracts the emotional core of Tolstoy’s 800-page novel (originally published in serial installments from 1873 to 1877), contrasting the plight of Anna — torn between a newfound sexuality and her duties as wife and mother, wanting her place in society while flaunting its rules — with that of Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), the idealistic young radical who flees from love after being rejected, only to find that his heart steers him true, the opposite of tragic Anna.
“I believe in reason,” insists Levin — the Tolstoy alter-ego — to one of his serfs, only to be asked in return, “Was it reason that made you choose your wife?” While it’s Wright’s visual flair that gives the film pop, it is sharp lines such as this that give it weight.