Joe Wright’s new adaptation of Anna Karenina opens with a wide shot of a stage, the sounds of an orchestra tuning, and a curtain rising. The telling of the story that follows is immersed in artifice, much of it taking place in a fluid theatrical space with lighting and staging effects, and moving flats, backdrops, and scenery. What Wright and his screenwriter Tom Stoppard (who knows a little something about The Theatre) have done is not adapt Tolstoy’s novel so much as they’ve staged it, creating a fluid three-way dialectic between the page, the stage, and the frame. It’s a fresh and ingenious approach, and results in a surprisingly high-spirited picture.
You read that right — this is a light and airy, fleet-footed and surprisingly comic film, as frisky in spots as a Luhrmann musical, but less obnoxious about it. That sounds, certainly, like some sort of betrayal of the source material, but fear not; this isn’t Wright’s version of a 3D Gatsby. Narratively speaking, the adaptation is a faithful one, the characters and their conflicts all accounted for. But instead of getting bogged down in the machinations of the plot, they’ve approached them with a sense of speed and compression (reminiscent of the Almereyda Hamlet). On a practical, logistical level, the “staging” of Karenina makes very basic sense: it’s an easy way to explain why all of the Russian characters have such lovely English accents. But there’s more to it than that surface consideration — Wright and Stoppard have lent this most Russian of novels a distinctively British sensibility.
And Keira Knightley, in the title role, is a revelation. This is an actor who is only getting more interesting with age; in her early roles she seemed a lovely apparition, possessing a melodic accent and striking face but lacking much in the way of presence. That initial impression has required serious reconsideration over the past couple of years; in films like A Dangerous Method, Last Night, and Wright’s Atonement, her performances have been increasingly nuanced yet forceful, her acting more deeply felt, imbued with a willingness (which often comes with maturity) to display a raw, wounded soul. And that openness makes the smoldering fire between her and Vronsky (well-played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson) fiercely erotic, and her eventual fate all the more searing.
The rest of the cast is similarly sublime. Taylor-Johnson, the versatile performer who has played both Kick-Ass and a young John Lennon, gives his character an intriguing sense of inevitability; from the moment he locks eyes with Anna, he’s clearly a goner. The great Matthew Macfadyen (from Wright’s Pride & Prejudice and the original Death at a Funeral) is a delight, strutting his razor-sharp comic timing as the rapscallion Oblonsky, and Domhall Gleeson (who played Bill Weasley, and took on the Dennis Hopper role in the Coens’ True Grit) gives Levin’s arc a nice bit of complexity. Kelly Macdonald, Olivia Williams, and Emily Watson each do wonders with their brief bits as society ladies — these are short character roles, but these are the actors to get for them. The most compelling supporting performance in the film, however, is Jude Law’s as Alexei, an honorable man attempting to maintain his trust in his wife and his tenuous hold on his dignity (and hers), but clearly seething underneath. There is a chilling iciness to the way he clicks out a line like “My wife is beyond reproach — she is, after all, my wife.”
Last month, Andrea Arnold’s adaptation of Wuthering Heights approached Brontë’s classic in a deliberately muted, intimate fashion, and gave the narrative a distinctively modern feel. Wright’s approach to Anna Karenina seems quite the opposite — he tarts the story up instead of stripping it down, his bravura long shots and novel, eye-catching conceptualized take on the material (matching the theatricality of the story, where every emotion is staged and displayed) achieving the same effect. He draws out the basic elements, yet makes them palpable and compelling cinema. Purists may wail, but it’s their loss; is a robust, exuberant, and intoxicating film.
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Also out this week, in limited release: the warm, kind-hearted, and rather wonderful (if terribly titled) Silver Linings Playbook, David O. Russell’s follow-up to The Fighter, featuring an electrifying Bradley Cooper turn, a direct and moving Robert De Niro performance that reminds us what we’ve lost as he’s wasted his time on dreck, and a juicy, nuanced female lead that Jennifer Lawrence digs into like a good meal. (The sight of Jennifer Lawrence listening is one of the greatest things happening in movies right now.) Also out in limited release: the vast, shattering, and infuriating Mea Maxima Culpa, a new documentary from Oscar-winner Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) that looks at sexual abuse in the Catholic church. Gibney starts with the repugnant case of Father Lawrence Murphy, who abused dozens of boys at a school for the deaf in Milwaukee, but as it progresses, the film goes deeper, looks higher (all the way to the current Pope), and gets angrier.
And Spielberg’s crisp and fascinating Lincoln goes into wide release, and Skyfall and Looper and Cloud Atlas and Holy Motors and Argo are still out there. The point is, unless you really hate things that are good, there’s no excuse for seeing a Twilight movie this weekend.