Joe Wright must thrive off playing things dangerously. Having chosen in 2005 to adapt Jane Austen’s most beloved novel a mere decade after the almost equally beloved TV show, he now turns his attention to Leo Tolstoy’s classic tale of doomed love. In the lead role is Keira Knightley, who turns in a powerful, nuanced performance that makes the general sense of ambivalence surrounding her ability even more inexplicable. Perhaps being the dullest part of the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ trilogy damaged her more than initially thought, but as Anna she conveys both vibrancy and vulnerability, which adds heart to what is otherwise a slightly detached experience.
In this adaptation, Wright has taken an unconventional path indeed. A majority of the film occurs in a disused theatre, with sets changing around the actors as they walk, and this affected theatricality proves to be a spectacular device. Especially so when coupled with several long, elaborate takes which must be seen to be believed. But what Wright’s approach adds to the film in energy and novelty, it unfortunately removes in emotional proximity. We are never allowed to immerse ourselves in the romance and tragedy as we are constantly reminded that this is simply a highly impressive production.
And it is highly impressive on all fronts. The cinematography is lush, the costumes dazzling, the cast uniformly excellent, albeit in their limited roles. Wright, perhaps wisely considering the length and breadth of the novel, narrows his focus almost entirely to the relationship between Anna and up-and-coming soldier Vronsky. Consequently, the parallel romance between Levin and Kitty is touching (indeed, they are at the centre of one of the film’s standout scenes towards the end) but infrequently visited, while Matthew Macfadyen’s exuberant adulterer Oblonsky has little to do but provide most of the film’s humour. Jude Law gets a little more time to impress as Anna’s softly-spoken, sympathetic husband, while Aaron Taylor-Johnson just about overcomes the handicap of his relative youth to convince as the object of Anna’s desire.
Ultimately, this new vision of Anna Karenina is laudable simply for not taking the tried and tested approach to period drama. What could have been a safe, well-produced but bland affair is instead bold and exciting. Some will love it, others will hate it, but few will deny that it is something very different to close the summer with.