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‘Anna Karenina’ Review

Focus Features

Do yourself a favor, don’t fall in love. This is my interpretation, at least, of Joe Wright‘s highly stylized version of Count Leo Tolstoy’s “best novel ever” ‘Anna Karenina‘ (which, I may as well fess up, I’ve never read).

I’ve seen my share of BBC productions, however, and from a formalist perspective at least, Wright deserves nothing but hearty applause. All the pomp and pageantry of 19th century Tsarist Russia is wound-up and placed inside a music box of false walls, flown-in furnishings and stagecraft. We commence with an overture of delightful camera choreography, more than enough sugar to help wash down the medicine of a dozen characters with confusing names connected to one another in complex ways.

In time, though, we’ll recognize Keira Knightley as our sympathetic lead, Anna, a loving mother a off to Moscow from St. Petersburg to try and convince her sister-in-law to forgive her brother. The brother, ya see, has been caught with his hand in the governess’ cookie jar, which is IRONIC because when Anna indulges in the same carnal act all of Russian society acts like it is the worst thing in the world.

The gender inequality is mere table stakes (and surely something we haven’t fully dealt with in 2012) but the more juicy questions arise when Anna and her lover question whether one can fight the cruel fate of finding happiness. Anna and Count Vronsky (played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who is either brilliantly or horribly cast, I honestly can’t tell) are fully aware they are walking into ruin when they commence their affair. (She is, you see, married to a government official.) It’ll be worse for her, naturally, but both recognize trying to stop it is like arguing with gravity.

The few glorious, lustful moments are the only ones Wright films in natural light; the proscenium of society is shattered and the doors to the theater are busted open. Knightley, not exactly hard on the eyes, brings a true, artful eroticism to these scenes. Personally, I don’t quite agree that Vronsky’s all that, especially with his two-tone, floppy hair. (Johnson is coiffed to resemble none other than Gene Wilder in ‘Young Frankenstein.’) However the specificity of the heart’s blinding light is very true to the story. In other words, who the hell am I to tell Anna Karenina that the embrace of Count Vronsky isn’t the only way to live, truly live?

Even a guy like me whose never read the book knows Anna’s fate, and Wright isn’t stingy with the train-related foreshadowing. However, it is just one of a wash of images that flow through the rather symphonic film. There’s a wonderful twist on the “two dancers amidst frozen people on the dance floor” gag. This time, when they pass people, those dancers spring to life, as if their love (“the blue mist” as Anna calls it) has the power to animate people.

“Anna Karenina” isn’t just a visual swirl, either. Tom Stoppard’s screenplay adaptation has more than enough lines to make a slam poetry audience go “unh!” and it well integrates the subplots meant to give counterpoint to Anna and Vronsky’s tale. The slow-buildup to stable (but true?) love between Domhnall Gleason and Alicia Vikander works in wonderful harmony to the torrential passions of the top billing.

Some may have an allergy to Wright’s interior aesthetic that can’t be explained away. That’s valid, I suppose, but one must ask just how many times we need to see the classics done up in Merchant-Ivory clothes? The scene at the races, stylized to the nth degree in Wright’s “Potemkin village” version, is so sharp in its creativity that, for my money, it tunes you in to the emotion of the scene in a way a vista of hundreds of extras in frilly gowns could never do. As such, ‘Anna Karenina’ is one of the more invigorating movies to come along in quite some time.

Rating Meter 9

Jordan Hoffman is a writer, critic and lapsed filmmaker living in New York City. His work can also be seen on Film.com, Badass Digest and StarTrek.com.

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