At this moment, Joe Wright’s incredible film version of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina stands a better than even chance of being my pick for the best film of 2012. It is the film I’d been hoping for Joe Wright to make ever since Pride & Prejudice in 2005 — only more so. Wright and writer Tom Stoppard have taken a well-worn classic of literature that has been filmed innumerable times — most famously in 1935 with Greta Garbo — starting back in 1910, and given it a new look, a new approach and, in fact, a new life. The approach is radical — and radical in ways that made it obvious from the onset that the results would be controversial. (I was surprised at the press screening where six out of seven local critics came down very much on the side of Wright’s film, and the seventh at least classed his response as “mixed, leaning positive.”) This is no well-mannered literary adaptation (something I would accuse Wright’s second feature, Atonement, of being to the point of suffocation). This is full-blooded, full-blown — and maybe even a little bit crazy — filmmaking. I’d call it a masterpiece, except that sounds rather stodgy — and this Anna Karenina is never stodgy.
You may have heard or read that the film is presented as if it was taking place on a stage, and while that’s not exactly untrue, it’s deceptive. Most of the film — everything but the agrarian scenes involving the story’s most honorable character, Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), who is usually given short shrift in other film versions — does indeed take place in a theater, but it hardly confines itself to the stage. It constantly bursts its confines to move into every nook and cranny of the theater — even into the space where the audience should be. And while all of it can be described as theatrical, none of it is in the least bit stagy. Wright’s camera is constantly moving through the bustle of the film — and the film is very busy indeed. It captures a forward momentum and a sense of urgency to its tale of its doomed title character quite unlike any version of the story I’ve ever seen. It might almost be a musical, except there are no songs. The film absolutely throbs with life. Stylistically, it’s like something Josef von Sternberg might have made in collaboration with Ken Russell and Baz Luhrmann — assuming, of course, that they didn’t kill each other, which seems pretty likely. Yet, at the same time, it is finally completely its own film. The traces are there, but Wright has made them his own.
What may surprise and even put off some viewers is that Wright’s Anna (Keira Knightley) is not entirely sympathetic or even always likable. There’s a sense that while the film finds her tragic and a product of a decadent society, it — and by extension, Tolstoy — doesn’t entirely approve of her or her rash actions. I’m assuming — the film certainly does — that everyone knows that her affair with the rather candy-box Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) doesn’t end well. But where other versions present her as a divine figure of romance, this Anna Karenina gives us a more wrong-headed “heroine.” In fact, here her usually stiff-backed and almost villainous cuckolded husband, Karenin (a devastating performance of great sadness from Jude Law), may be the more sympathetic of the pair.
However you ultimately feel about the film, I cannot imagine anyone not being completely blown away by its visual splendor and its uncanny procession of cinematically magnificent set-pieces. The ball at which Anna first dances with Vronsky is perhaps the most thrilling piece of cinema I’ve seen in this decade. A second ball — which ends with Anna sealing her fate — is very nearly as good. The horse racing sequence — owing something to the one in George Cukor’s My Fair Lady, but taking it to unbelievable heights — is also a stunner. That, however, after three viewings seems to me only the tip of the iceberg in this glorious feast of a movie that is unlike anything else you will see this year. Rated R for some sexuality and violence.
Starts Friday, Jan. 25 at Flatrock Cinema