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FILM REVIEW: Anna Karenina

Categories: Movies

Something must have happened to director Joe Wright after 2007's Atonement.

The British director had already made his name with lush love stories such as that Oscar-winning drama and Pride and Prejudice. He followed Atonement with The Soloist, a surprisingly messy if somewhat predictable film about a homeless musician. But that was just the warm up for Wright's thriller Hanna. After saying he wanted something a little "punk" the director mashed up covert action with a coming-of-age story in a frenetic yet touching pop-art firecracker of a film.

Jude LawDirector Joe Wright on the set of Anna Karenina. (Laurie Sparham/Alliance Films)

The embers of that effort can be seen still crackling in Wright's audacious adaptation of that most classic of Russian novels: Anna Karenina. Inspired in part by Wright's parents' background as puppeteers, Anna Karenina is filmed in a massive decaying theatre. It's a mix of footlights and fantasy as walls lift and backgrounds slide into place to create a theatrical feeling.

The centre of the action remains Anna, the dutiful wife of stoic and serious Aleksei Karenin in late 1800s Russia. Wright's go-to muse Keira Knightley is Anna, with a balding, almost monkish-looking Jude Law as her husband. On a journey to Moscow to save her brother's marriage, Anna meets the dashing Count Vronsky, a young mustachioed officer played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson with a shock of blond hair worthy of '80s popsters A-ha.

Anna fights the attraction, but soon she and Vronsky take their passions to the bedroom with tragic consequences for her quiet life in Saint Petersburg. To play off this tale of lust, screenwriter Tom Stoppard squeezes in the side story of Levin, the socially conscious landowner, and Kitty, a spurned object of Vronsky's affections. The shy but earnest Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) pursues the blond vision of beauty to the point of embarrassment, but later Tolstoy gives the two a second chance in a playful reunion Wright captures by using children's letter blocks as love letters.

Joe WrightJude Law stars as Karenin in Anna Karenina. (Laurie Sparham/Alliance Films)

While both Keira Knightley and Jude Law shine in this production, the star quality of the film is created by the imaginative theatrical spin. At Levin's first glimpse of Kitty, she's framed by papier-mâché clouds. A torn letter results in a blizzard of confetti falling from above. Exquisitely painted backgrounds slip and slide to reveal new scenes, as characters jump from location to location like comic book characters stepping between panels. Backstage, the lower classes toil in the darkness, the catwalks above extending the metaphor.

All of the artifice gives Anna Karenina a sense of the surreal that accentuates the drama. Wright has talked about the theatrical theme as being derived from Tolstoy's characters, who were performing for each other. But there's an emotional logic that anchors these flights of fantasy. Such as when Aleksei, his heart shattered, steps through his bedroom door to sit sagging in front of the footlights of an empty stage.

Like Tolstoy's novel, Wright's Anna Karenina is guilty of being unbalanced. After a dazzling beginning and some stunning set pieces, the movie evolves into a more traditional translation roughly midway through. Then there's the matter of Wright's cast. Knightley is effervescent as Anna, squinting with glee, revelling in happiness with her newfound love. As the suitor Vronsky, Aaron Taylor-Johnson is more pout than passion. He cuts a dashing figure in his uniform, but seems an unworthy source of such longing. Johnson should study Jude Law's performance. Once a striking leading man, he's evolved into a much more interesting character actor. His brow constantly creased with worry, Law turns in a remarkably restrained, quiet performance as Aleksei - a careful creature of habit who is slow to reveal his agony.

Keira Knightley Keira Knightley stars in Joe Wright's adaptation of the epic story Anna Karenina. (Laurie Sparham/Alliance Films)

While Anna Karenina doesn't entirely succeed on its own terms, it's a stunning attempt. Wright said he conceived of his Anna as "a ballet with words" and while the landing is less than perfect, it's certainly a leap worth taking.

RATING: 4 out of 5

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