Is the latest film from Joe Wright a case of "style over substance?" Our own Jason Gorber certainly felt that way when he saw Anna Karenina at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. As he noted in his review, Mr. Gorber has not seen Joe Wright's previous work, is not a fan of Tolstoy and finds Keira Knightley's physical appearance to be "repellent." While he acknowledged the film's impressive "visual twists and theatrical nods," he concluded: "Call me jaded, but the comings and goings all feel more than a little bit telegraphed to a modern audience. Without narrative surprise, we're left with more style than substance here." While I have myself fallen victim in the past to the dreaded festival burnout, allow me to make an argument for why Joe Wright's take on Tolstoy's classic is perhaps the most enjoyable cinematic adaptation of great literature this year.
As Mr. Gorber points out, the film is packed with strong performances throughout. Knightley is at her best as thriving St. Petersburg's societal pinnacle. Though her downfall is abridged, her physical transformation paints an effective psychological portrait. Anna's spiral into her own psychoses is horrifying, with Knightley's vivid portrayal of the doomed heroine one of the best of her career.
It doesn't hurt that Wright surrounds Knightley with marvelous performances at each turn. Jude Law's subdued Karenin has an exceptional dynamism that simultaneously brings out our love and hate for the humble man as his compassion drives Anna to the brink. Matthew MacFayden plays Oblonsky with just the right sense of humor while young lovers Kitty (Alicia Vikander) and Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) draw us into their lives with remarkable vigor for such a condensed tale. The choice of Aaron Taylor-Johnson as a very young and very pretty Vronsky may be a bit controversial, but his chops prove up to snuff, especially in the early scenes when the young man is cast as the invincible playboy. Every turn really does bring another meaty role that is gladly gobbled up by one of the best ensembles this year. A final note of praise for the casting of Downton Abbey's Michelle Dockery as Princess Myagkaya. It's so good to see Lady Mary out in society.
The innovative production design and cinematography do indeed "continue to both surprise and impress for the entire running time," as Mr. Gorber puts it. But these elements play a purpose far greater than just pretty scenery. With a tale like Anna Karenina, Wright makes the assumption that the audience will be well enough familiar with the course the ship is sailing. Even if you've never read this particular story, it is obvious quite early that Anna's tale will not end happily ever after. Therefore, the innovative technical design elements function as a pressure release valve. Wright allows his film to wink at the audience every so often as if to say, "Look, don't get caught up in the depression of impending tragedy -- let's just enjoy the emotional ride." This ingenuity lets the story go to the dark places we know we need to go, all while keeping the audience at a comfortable distance.
Perhaps it's this distance that has left some (incluing our Mr. Gorber) feeling empty. Much to the contrary, this drew me all the further in, creating a connection to the characters that still has me reeling. It's a testament to Wright as a filmmaker, and more particularly, as an expert at literary adaptation, that he is able to so effectively tell Tolstoy's brilliant and sprawling story with such remarkable efficiency. With barely more than two hours of screen time, Wright draws the viewer into the irresistible, magical world of Anna Karenina, a world that is hard to imagine anyone would ever want to leave
Anna Karenina opens in limited North American theaters from Focus Features on November 16.