Joe Wright’s breakthrough film was “Pride and Prejudice,” a very well-made and spirited adaptation of the frequently adapted novel by Jane Austen. While I admired the craftsmanship, I had already reached an oversaturation point with the material itself. It is safe to say that I never need to see another production of “Pride” in any format, or a loose adaptation or a re-imagining or pretty much any version. It wasn’t Wright’s problem, but mine.
His adaptation of Ian McEwan’s “Atonement” was far more impressive to me, and that was a case of familiarity with the source material adding to the impact of the film. I thought it was a book that really couldn’t work as a film, and yet working with Christopher Hampton, as smart an adapter as one could hope to hire, Wright turned a largely internal piece of work into something cinematic and visually dynamic. “The Soloist” felt like Hollywood trying to absorb Wright and turn him into a studio filmmaker, someone they could plug into pretty much anything, but with “Hanna,” Wright seems to have reclaimed his voice and once again demonstrated that his keen eye for material (it was a great script by Seth Lochhead and David Farr) is better served when he’s able to be daring, to come at things from a slightly left-of-center perspective.
It should come as no surprise, then, that he has taken one of the great novels of all time, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and working with one of the great voices in modern theater, Tom Stoppard, come up with something that honors the book but also refigures it in a way that illuminates the material to striking effect. Wright is once again working with his favorite leading lady, Keira Knightley, and this might be their most stylish, heightened effort yet. Tolstoy’s book dealt with the duties of marriage as defined by Russian culture at a certain point, as well as the way social obligation and personal passion can pull a person apart. Wright and Stoppard have come up with an immediate way of making the book’s themes explicit, and how you respond to the film will depend largely on how you react to the device they’ve created.
The film begins in a theater, and the action we see all takes place either on the stage or backstage or in the riggings overhead. For the first stretch of the film, everything plays out in this environment, and it’s obvious that Wright and Stoppard see Russian society at the time as a stage, where everyone is constantly being watched, and every action scrutinized. The only moments where the film opens up to a real world is when characters walk away from “high society,” like Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), a farmer who has fallen in love with Kitty (Alicia Vikander). When he goes home, leaving the confusion and chaos of society behind, he walks out into a beautiful location. He’s part of what’s real, and in those moments, we see the world he lives in is more substantial than the world where most of the film takes place.
It’s a grand gesture, and if the film didn’t work as a whole, the dramatic conceit would feel like an empty posture. Stoppard’s script does a great job of boiling down the book to something manageable in the relatively brief running time of the film, and it does so by mainly focusing on the doomed love story between Anna (Knightley) and Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a young soldier who decides that he must have this married woman. Her husband Karenin (Jude Law) is respected and scholarly, a man of God, and for Anna to break her marriage vows is worse than just your standard-issue indiscretion. It’s a taboo that causes her entire world to crumble, and even so, she cannot help herself. This is a story of mad love, love that does nothing but destroy those caught up in it, and both Taylor-Johnson and Knightley really cut loose, playing it with passion that feels genuine. Seamus McGarvey’s photography, the score by Dario Marianelli, the sumptuous production design by Sarah Greenwood… all of it plays into this overheated relationship, this all-consuming desire, and the film does a great job of conveying how that feels. Wright does everything he can to put us at the eye of this particular hurricane so we can feel it for ourselves. This isn’t about watching it with a dispassionate eye, but is instead about feeling what it’s like to get so caught up in passion that everything else fades away.
I do think that, stripped of much of its text, this is a slight story in some ways, and to some degree, it is the way the story is told that wowed me more than the story itself. The last third of the film loses some steam narratively, and it’s hard to make a wallow in self-pity feel as engrossing as the early embrace of the passion, but Wright manages to find grace notes even in that stretch. Overall, Joe Wright continues to distinguish himself with this film, and it seems to me that he’s still just mastering his voice. If that’s the case, then we have a lot to look forward to from him in years to come, and here’s hoping audiences get lost in this lovely, painful romantic fever dream.
“Anna Karenina” opens in theaters this Friday.