Director Joe Wright does not have me convinced that it's possible to adapt Leo Tolstoy's epic romance Anna Karenina in a way that does the book -- for my money, the best I've ever read -- full and complete justice. But he does have me convinced that he's done just about as good a job as anyone can do in condensing such a grand, sweeping tome -- all 350,000-plus words of it -- about love, the hypocrisy of high society, the merits of urban vs. rural living, etc. into a two-hours-and-change box.
This is the 12th time Anna Karenina has been turned in to a feature-length film; having not seen them all, yes, I doubt any of them have as much verve or as vivacious as the work put in here by Wright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard.
The tragic title character is played by Keira Knightley -- the third time now that she has served as Wright's muse, counting her turns in 2005's Pride & Prejudice and 2007's Atonement alongside this role. Anna, if you aren't familiar with her story, is the wife of a powerful government official, Alexei Karenin (Jude Law), a decent but chilly man many years her senior, with whom she has a young son. She is not unhappy per se, but neither is she particularly happy in her marriage. When she travels from St. Petersburg to Moscow to help make peace between her womanizing brother, Oblonsky (Matthew Macfayden), and his wife Dolly (Kelly Macdonald), that lurking dissatisfaction bubbles up. Anna is exposed to Moscow society where she meets Count Vronsky (Aaron Johnson) and soon engages in a torrid love affair with the dashing cavalry officer.
In 1870s Tsarist Russia, this is a societal death sentence for a Princess like Anna. The affair becomes an open secret, leading to great shame for both her and her cuckolded husband, and leaving her trapped between her incompatible wishes to run off with Vronsky and stay beside her son. It's a downward spiral of despair for Anna, who simply can't solve this riddle.
Running parallel to Anna's tragic tale, is the fits-and-starts romance of Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) and Dolly's younger sister Kitty (Alicia Vikander). Levin is an eccentric where the Russian aristocracy is concerned, shunning the high society in Moscow and St. Petersburg to work on his own estate, even deigning to pick up a scythe and harvest hay alongside the peasants. He is quiet, sensitive and shy -- the true hero of Tolstoy's novel -- and that extreme awkwardness throws up quite the obstacle, both in his courtship of Kitty and in their eventual marriage.
In Anna and Vronsky and Levin and Kitty, we have the highs and lows of love, and though I wish Wright had not glossed over the Levin-Kitty story in parts (particularly toward the end of the film), he is able to do what few of his predecessors have -- present the balanced look at love that the novel does by presenting both romances alongside each other.
I believe the biggest reason he was able to do so was because he told set the whole story against a quite unconventional backdrop. The theatre and theatre culture is integral to the plot of Anna Karenina, and so Wright made the bold choice to set much of the plot on a quite literal stage, with Vronsky and Levin and Oblonsky dodging past curtains and around the rafters of an impromptu Opera House. It was jarring to the point of distraction at first, but once you figured out what was going on, the film had the pace and rhythm that I don't think would have otherwise been possible (and given the length of the source material, this is nothing at which to sneeze). If you can imagine the sensibilities and movements of a musical without, you know, any actual singing you've got the general idea.
The other big thing Wright has going for him is the casting. Law and Macfayden are particularly outstanding, but so too are the relative unknowns in Gleeson and Vikander. This might not live up all the way to Tolstoy's classic, but considering that I don't think it's possible for any film to do so, I'm willing to judge things on a curve.