Alluring 'Anna Karenina' Doesn't Cheat On Tragedy
"Romantic love will be the last illusion of the old order," warns a transformed Jude Law as Alexei Karenin. With such grandiloquent statements, Anna Karenina winningly adapts Leo Tolstoy's 19th century classic of a young adulteress shunned by Russia's high society for her transgression of the flesh. There will be Oscars, yes, for the costumes and sets; but there is also a sophistication in the vision and direction of Joe Wright that makes the most of the film's promising cast and original subject matter, and justifies yet another rendition of what Vladimir Nabokov once called one of the greatest love stories in world literature.
Keira Knightley returns to her period drama roots (Pride and Prejudice, Atonement, Doctor Zhivago) to deliver another timeless performance — timeless in that it employs a frequently-tested formula that seems to work well whether in the context of 1800s Russia or WWII Britain, as it were. But there's value to that. She has mastered this figure, which in truth varies little, of a bright and bold but romantically naive young woman whose amorous affections are necessarily mired by tragedy, and which she inhabits with an air of effortless elegance. In Anna Karenina, Knightley reprises this role as a socialite, married to a respected and dull politician, who is shocked to find herself, after several years of marriage, in love for the first time with the dashing Count Vronsky, played by the handsome Aaron Taylor-Johnson whose talent is perhaps not showcased to its full potential here, though he meets the requirements of this particular character well.
To recapitulate: In her naiveté, Anna confuses — perhaps rightly, perhaps not — her new-found passion and seduction with true love, and fails to recognize until it's too late that there are other forms of love she will have to sacrifice for it, e.g. the moral security of a revered companion, her parental attachment to her son, her taste for the luxury of status and freedom of wealth, all of which are threatened by her scandalous affair. But "you can't ask Why about love!" Vronsky tells her: The tragic ending may thus not be so much an answer to the question of whether such a love is worth pursuing, or of its nature and origins, as a commentary on the social pressures and values of Anna Karenina's time and, indeed, ours. "There can be no peace for us now, only misery, and the greatest happiness."
Anna Karenina is not a masterpiece, but it is a commendable effort and a successful film in its own right, leaving one pleased, and then doubly pleased, for not disappointing our expectations despite the rigor and sheer impossibility of its adaptative task. Its greatest merit is a meticulously crafted and highly stylized mise en scene that seeks to reproduce the theatrical, scrutinizing gaze of society on the transgressive individual (with obvious parallels in today's modern media and celebrity culture), and the choreographed nature of society's rituals and inherent rules of engagement.
Anna Karenina is, after all, a spectacle; a tragedy par excellence. Wright, who also directed Knightley in Pride and Prejudice and Atonement, drives this point home with his meta approach that reproduces the inherent drama of the human experience — and never more so than in Anna Karenina — in this thespian rendition that seeks to tear down the Fourth Wall by blurring our contemporary gazes with those of Karenina's damning peers in society.
At hand to ease this anxiety-ridden experiment with their pithy and nuanced performances are breakthrough Irish talent Domhnall Gleeson, most popularly known as Bill Weasley in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, who plays Konstantin Levin; Scottish rising star Kelly Macdonald, from Trainspotting, No Country for Old Men and HBO hit Boardwalk Empire; and British veteran actor Matthew Macfayden, from Pride and Prejudice and BBC drama Spooks, who festers with whimsy and eccentricity in Karenina's opening sequences.
Though at times it feels as though Wright, Knightley and Dario Marinelli, the film's composer who also penned the score for Pride and Prejudice and Atonement, are monopolizing the period drama scene, this would be no cause for complaint. Their individual talents blend successfully and consistently to produce works that are always greater than the sum of their parts, even when veering on the formulaic, and remind us why certain narratives that threaten to fall into oblivion or cliché are worth revisiting time and again.