In Imperial Russia 1874, socialite Anna Karenina (Knightley), seemingly content in a passionless marriage to dependable government official Karenin (Law), falls for dashing cavalry officer Count Vronsky (Taylor-Johnson) and starts an affair that turns her world and polite Russian society upside down.
There are numerous reasons to welcome, if not cherish, Joe Wright’s adaptation of Tolstoy’s 1873 socialite-shags-a-soldier doorstop. Despite eye-popping period finery, longing looks a-plenty and Olympic standard fan waving, Anna Karenina militantly doesn’t want to be just another costume drama; it attacks the heavyweight concerns of Russian literature (hypocrisy, jealousy, faith, fidelity, the pastoral vs. the urban, huge moustaches) with wit and verve; most exciting of all, it is filmmaking of the highest order, channeling every other art form from painting to ballet to puppetry while remaining completely cinematic.
Wright’s conceit is to dramatise the lion’s share of Tolstoy’s 864 pages inside a dilapidated 19th century theatre to suggest the falsity of Russian society, only roaming into “real” world to follow young romantic Levin (a terrific Domhnall Gleeson) in his search for a “real” life. So, via One From The Heart-esque theatre craft, the set transforms from endless desks of accountants rhythmically stamping to a full-sized train entering a bustling station to a steeplechase raging across the stage all within the confines of the theatre walls. Best of all is a lavish ball in which Taylor-Johnson’s officer sweeps Knightley’s Anna off her feet. It is an Adam Ant video directed by Visconti and it is stunning.
Yet Wright doesn’t let the theatricality spill into the naturalistic performances. Knightley and Taylor-Johnson inhabit Anna and Vronsky but as the relationship moves on the central pair’s dilemma become less involving. More touching is the young romance between Gleeson’s Levin and Alicia Vikander’s Kitty — when they spell out their feelings in lettered blocks, it is as moving love scene as we've seen this year.
Around the central couples, a clutch of familiar faces help navigate the dense dramatis personae — stand-outs include Law as Anna’s staid spouse (you’ll shudder at his little box) and a boisterous Macfadyen as Anna’s brother — but this is really its director’s movie. Bold, imaginative, thought-provoking and passionate, Anna Karenina puts Wright at the forefront of filmmaking in Britain. Or anywhere.
If it doesn’t ultimately engage your heart as it might, Anna Karenina is period drama at its most exciting, intoxicating and modern. Spellbinding.