While some may shrink at the notion of bringing an oft-adapted classic to the big screen once more, director Joe Wright proves more than up to the challenge in tackling Leo Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina," offering up an innovative vision that helps revitalize the story.
Primarily set in a deteriorating theater — to emphasize that the lives of its characters are constantly on display — the film is a gorgeous exercise in production design, costuming and in presenting its star, Keira Knightley, at her most ethereal. But the film is far more than an exercise in ornamentation as its appearance belies the hypocrisy harbored by the society it portrays.
Wright wastes little time diving into the story as he crosscuts between two households. The first is that of Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen) who has thrown his home into turmoil because of his affair with the family nanny. The other is that of his sister Anna (Knightley) and her husband Karenin (Jude Law), a high-ranking government official. Seems the adulterer wants his sibling to visit him right away to try and convince his wife, Dolly (Kelly Macdonald), to take him back.
Anna agrees to come, unknowingly sending herself on a collision course with the dashing Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), whom she first meets at the train station in Moscow and later at a ball, where Dolly's young sister Kitty (Alicia Vikander) was hoping for a proposal from the young officer. However, that's not to be as he now only has eyes for Anna, and these two embark on a love affair that will ultimately result in tragedy for all involved.
While some may complain of the claustrophobic nature of the production, what with 90 percent of it confined to the theater setting, this approach effectively underscores the scrutiny all involved are under and that nothing they do — or do not do in Karenin's case — goes unnoticed by the patrons of high society they associate with.
This is most effective during the famous horse racing that ends disastrously for Vronsky and his steed. The reactions of the three principals cannot be hidden, and all is laid bare for all to see in regard to how this love triangle is playing out.
Equally effective is the scene at the ball where Anna and Vronsky first dance. Wright provides a wonderfully choreographed and edited sequence that shows the two lovers dancing among others, then shown alone as they've blocked out all those around them, and finally twirling about quickly in a crowd, as we see poor Kitty doing the same with various partners as her heart breaks on a public stage. The result is an exhilarating combination of movement and light, a captivating occurrence that perfectly sums up their all-consuming love for one another.
The film is replete with one sumptuous sight after another. The costumes and sets throughout are gorgeous, and this extends to Knightley and Taylor-Johnson themselves. The actress has grown over the years, and she is at her best here, determined to stay the course in her marriage, confused over the passion that has awakened in her and is finally consumed by it. Knightly is true in every moment, and her beauty proves to be yet another facade in hiding Anna's fragility.
Taylor-Johnson is surprisingly good as well, playing up the foppish side of Vronsky, giving a slightly obvious performance early on to show how empty this man is, but then the actor does a fine job displaying the true concern his character develops for his lover. It goes without saying that Law is fine as well, garnering our sympathy in underplaying his role, obviously adrift and blind-sided by the societal shift his wife's behavior symbolizes.
Wright is less successful in emphasizing the difference between the moral values of Russia's agrarian lifestyle and that of the urban. The character of Kitty's ultimate suitor, Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), is given short shrift throughout and begs to be developed. And while the lesson that's ultimately delivered in the subplot he inhabits is valid, it seems a bit too pat and tacked on.
Regardless, this "Anna Karenina" is a sight to behold and should be seen on a big screen so as to drink in each detail Wright has so meticulously captured. What with his clever use of the theater space and lush presentation of the players in this tragic story, he effectively drives home the notion that, in a sense, we are all trapped where our misdeeds are concerned and that what others may think of our actions is far less important than how we ultimately view them.
31/2 stars out of 4
Cast: Keira Knightley, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Jude Law, Matthew Macfadyen, Kelly Macdonald, Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Emily Watson and Olivia Williams
Directed by Joe Wright, produced by Joe Bevan and Paul Webster, screenplay by Tom Stoppard, adapted from the novel by Leo Tolstoy
A Focus Features release, 129 minutes, rated R (some sexuality and violence), at the Art Theater
Also new in theaters
"Collection" worthless exercise in gratuitous violence. (Zero stars)
Controversy surrounding how violence has been displayed in cinema has been with us since the earliest days of the medium. That it takes a large-scale tragedy to thrust the subject back into our social consciousness, before we let it slip back into our collective denial, says something about how oblivious we've become to the mayhem regularly offered up on screen.
Having been consciously watching films for more than 40 years and reviewing them critically for 20, I'm well aware of the fact that I have become somewhat numb to graphic scenes of violence that others find offensive. Does the fact that I find a slow-motion killing of a midlevel mobster in the recent "Killing Them Softly" to be a beautifully rendered ballet of death, underscoring the sudden and violent nature of murder, mean that I have a screw loose? Maybe
The problem is that when violent stories are presented by skilled filmmakers, the lines blur even further between what's acceptable in terms of screen violence and what is not. I doubt there has been a more analyzed piece of filmmaking than the infamous shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho," while the films of Martin Scorsese, Clint Eastwood, Quentin Tarantino and Brian De Palma, all revered directors in their own right, contain one violent moment after another, often rendered with more art than malice. These filmmakers were considered boundary pushers at one time where this issue was concerned, with films such as "Reservoir Dogs" and "Dressed to Kill," which are now regarded as tame exercises.
Perhaps that's the problem — once the boundary of what's acceptable has been pushed, some directors become eager to see how much further they can nudge that line, knowing particular viewers will eagerly line up to see the results. Director Eli Roth certainly did plenty of boundary stretching in 2005 with "Hostel," a film I admired more than enjoyed, and brought the term "torture porn" into the social vernacular with his tale of young Americans being sadistically tortured by those willing to pay for the privilege. This film proved to be a hit and spawned many imitators, and just when I thought this subgenre had been laid to rest with the last entry in the "Saw" franchise, along comes "The Collection," a vile piece of work that revels in its own heinous images.
The film's plot is simple, as a team of mercenaries has been hired by a local bigwig to rescue his daughter who is being held in a building that has been booby-trapped by a psychopath with too much time on his hands. A large group of young adults are slaughtered by combine blades that descend over a dance floor, others are crushed under a metal grate, time being taken to show one woman's skull ground to a pulp, while others are eviscerated at the drop of a hat.
As I was suffering through this piece of trash (note: this newspaper's editorial policy prevents me from expressing how I truly feel about this film), I was encouraged to see that the theater was sparsely populated and happy to see Monday morning that the film made a paltry $3.1 million over the weekend.
While I'm not going to kid myself into thinking this failure at the box office means audiences have finally had their fill of these atrocities, perhaps it means there will be a brief respite before another "innovator" bursts on the scene to see what he can get away with, and the morbidly curious slink in to see just how far he has gone.
A member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, Chuck Koplinski studied film at Chicago's Columbia College and has reviewed films for 20 years. For DVR alerts, film recommendations and movie news, follow him on Twitter at @CKoplinski. He also can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.