First published between 1873 and 1877 as a series of installments in a literary magazine, Anna Karenina is a more than one thousand page opus about the ill-fated affair between a St. Petersburg socialite and a young soldier. Despite the soap opera at the heart of the story, the novel is actually much deeper because it explores many motifs, including feminism, family, forgiveness, and fate.
Leo Tolstoy’s tale of forbidden love has been brought to the screen over 20 times, most notably starring Greta Garbo (1935) and Vivien Leigh (1948) in the title role. Here, Academy Award nominee Keira Knightley (for Pride & Prejudice) delivers a fresh interpretation of the flawed heroine in a bold adaptation directed by Joe Wright.
The movie is the pair’s third collaboration, which includes the critically acclaimed Pride & Prejudice (2005) and Atonement (2007), costume dramas which together received a total of 11 Oscar nominations. Similar accolades are likely in store for this movie as well, primarily as a consequence of Knightley’s powerful performance and Wright’s daring and dazzling interpretation of the Russian classic.
The highly stylized production has a stagy feel to it rather reminiscent of Moulin Rouge! (2001). Most of the film unfolds in a dingy dilapidated theater, which might sound at first like a disappointing downsizing of the sweeping source material. But this surreal treatment, replete with stampeding horses and a host of other surprises lying in wait in the wings and up in the rafters, is nothing short of magical without diminishing the Tolstoy epic one iota.
At the point of departure, we find unhappily married Anna falling in love with dashing Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a bachelor serving in the cavalry. The two proceed to carry on shamelessly, much to the chagrin of her older cuckolded husband, Alexei Karenin (Jude Law), who is a boring government bureaucrat.
In addition, the picture devotes its attention to a couple of lesser-developed subplots. One involves Anna’s brother (Matthew Macfadyen), a womanizer who has been cheating on his wife Dolly (Kelly Macdonald). The other is about wealthy Konstantin Levin’s (Domhnall Gleeson) pursuit of Dolly’s teenage sister Kitty (Alicia Vikander), a debutante who has hopes of being courted by Vronsky.
Ultimately, Anna’s mind gradually unravels, as she is tragically undone by a mixture of jealousy, bitterness, and assorted social pressures. All of the above transpires before a visually arresting backdrop as envisioned and brilliantly executed by the gifted Wright.
A sumptuous cinematic feast!
Excellent (****). Rated R for sexuality and violence. Running time: 130 minutes. Distributor: Focus Features.