In the five years since Joe Wright last fixed his camera on a lissome, silk-swaddled Keira Knightley, he appears to have taken concerted, even hasty, steps away from a reputation he’d never made as much effort to acquire as his harshest critics would have you believe. Those accusing him of safely wallowing in Masterpiece Theater starch, or brashly seizing the mantle of the late Anthony Minghella (already a little moth-eaten from its time in David Lean’s wardrobe), seem prompted more by the comfortable middlebrow success of his first two films than the often invigorating evidence on screen.
No one needed another “Pride and Prejudice,” true, but Wright’s frisky, grass-stained romp proved you could young up the classics without taking them to Vegas; “Atonement” occasionally buckled under the weight of its formal ostentation, but was bracingly concept-y in its romanticism, doubling back on Ian McEwan’s exclusively literary twists with cool elan. It was an impressive one-two, but Wright obviously felt cowed into contemporary material by glib Merchant-Ivory comparisons. The modern LA folk tale of “The Soloist” wasn’t as gloopy as it looked from a distance, but it felt like an assignment. Far weirder and more vital was “Hanna,” a daffy girl-oriented chase thriller lent cred and urgency by its full-throttle techno-Grimm styling; his best film to date, it’s also the one that had us wondering who Joe Wright, like his equally mutable heroine, really is.
This question isn’t really answered by “Anna Karenina,” his typically resplendent but counter-intuitively conceived adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s teeming, bristly epic novel. You could argue for it being a retreat to corseted heritage drama after two forays into the 21st century that, respectable box office for “Hanna” notwithstanding, didn’t quite take – only juiced up with some of the whizz-bang flash he learned on his last feature. That wouldn’t be quite fair. Yes, “Anna Karenina” is a judiciously experimental costumer, but while it’s more hyper-stylized than either of his previous period pieces, it’s not especially more modern – or indeed post-modern – than “Atonement” was.
Whether Wright believes that himself, however, is up for debate. He’s certainly lampshading his revisionism more than before, though it’s hard not to do so when the controlling conceit is this brash. In case you hadn’t heard, this “Anna Karenina” – a tale that usually spreads itself luxuriously across the ample upper-class playgrounds and earthier rural steppes of 19th-century Russia – is set almost entirely within the confines of a theater, its complex politics of bedroom and ballroom alike playing out on the stage, as well as in the balconies and rat runs of the same, endlessly refolded building. Well, it is and it isn’t: the characters aren’t in on the joke, oblivious to the weathered wooden boards and stray stage hands placing their personal dramas within quotation marks.
For a radical treatment that was reportedly necessitated by budget cuts rather than any theatrical metaphor initially ingrained in playwright Tom Stoppard’s reasonably thorough adaptation, it holds together surprisingly well. However inorganic, the motivation is logical, if a tad literal: the play-within-a-play framing underlines the claustrophobia, the sense of constant scrutiny Anna feels as the dissolution of her marriage is observed, judged and finally condemned by Moscow high society. When the film sporadically exits the theater for the great outdoors, setting intimate scenes between Anna and her dashing military lover Vronsky, both attired in blinding “Elvira Madigan” white, in verdant sunlit forests, the symbolism couldn’t be less subtle if Wright cued up Tiffany’s “I Think We’re Alone Now” on the soundtrack.
That, of course, is a trick Baz Luhrmann would have pulled, and while Wright contents himself with grandiloquent Dario Marianelli orchestrations instead, there’s a lot of Luhrmann’s self-branded Red Curtain aesthetic at play here — beginning with the red velvet curtains that open the film in the first place. It’s great fun — a word that deserves to be applied more often to Tolstoy’s profound yet compulsive soap opera — watching Wright work out the practical nuts and bolts of his slightly dotty, drama teacher-ish flight of fancy. Each familiar scene is freshly tinged with curiosity over just how he’s going to stage it: screens slide and collapse to waltz us seamlessly from room to room; a furious horse race flashes by from one stage wing to the other, like film yanked through a nickelodeon; even the novel’s all-important steam train morphs between a life-size model and a Toy Town edition, like the prettiest Scalextric you ever saw.
This is origami-style filmmaking, complicating forms because it knows how, and if it doesn’t add much to the text — the straight-arrow script isn’t playing along with its romantic make-believe games — it doesn’t obfuscate things either. Chiefly, it gives Wright’s regular production designer Sarah Greenwood a veritable wonderland of environments to create, merge and shuffle, her sets alternating between the heightened reality of theater and the heightened theatricality of upper-crust decor, with all the backstage sawdust and tinsel also in plain sight. Her exhaustively playful work is, to my mind, the shoo-in frontrunner for the freshly renamed Best Production Design category at the upcoming Academy Awards.
Similarly unbeatable-looking are Jacqueline Durran’s remarkable costumes. They’re ravishing, of course, but less for their predictably expensive rufflery — and the increasingly spidery black veils that seem to swallow Anna whole as her emotional state becomes ever less tenable — than for the unexpectedly contemporary accents the designer weaves into the corseted formula. (And out of it: a striking last-reel scene finds Anna tellingly standing in just her underclothes and the rickety skeleton of a hoop skirt before making her famous final decision.) Just as that green dress in “Atonement” seemed to have slipped from the pages of a 2007 edition of Vogue, the modernity of Anna’s sharp bias-sliced necklines and glittering asymmetrical jewels here seem calculated to underline the cultural durability — indeed, the precocity — of Karenina as a female icon of fiction.
That Knightley’s angular, tightly controlled performance appears to have similar aims is hardly surprising, given that the young Londoner has long been the go-to girl for bringing a brisk 21st-century sensibility to out-of-time period heroines, whether in “Pride and Prejudice,” “The Duchess” or “A Dangerous Method.” She’s getting craftier at it, too — here, she uses the regular quaver in her voice to the character’s nervous advantage — but it’d have been exciting to see her try matching her director’s florid excess with a more grandly stylized star turn in the register of cinema’s reigning best Anna, Garbo. (Alicia Vikander, the hugely promising Swedish actress, might have given it a game go: as it is, she steals the film with her tenderly flirtatious, open-hearted interpretation of Kitty.)
Still, such an approach might only further have shown up the inadequacies of a sorely miscast Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Vronsky: the curious stylistic choice of blonde jheri churls may not be his fault, but all that pouty sashaying is. Taylor-Johnson projects Vronsky’s cockiness, but not his magnetism — and with no chemistry to ignite them, these two brittle young figures wind up reflecting, rather than consuming, each other.
For all Knightley’s best efforts, theirs never seems like a love for which Anna might abandon everything, or indeed anything. There’s more passion in the parallel story of society girl Kitty and the guileless Levin (a pleasingly cast Domnhall Gleeson), but the film never quite forges the required emotional exchange between these narrative tracks; with Wright seemingly more fixated on the design of his narrative than the narrative itself, the door is left open to the chill. This is a richly, rewardingly, improbably alive “Anna Karenina,” but there’s a difference between a film that is constantly in motion, and one that actually moves. All the men and women merely players, indeed.