By Natalie Gadbois, Daily Arts Writer
Published December 3, 2012
Even when going insane, Keira Knightley (“A Dangerous Method”) always looks perfect. But in “Anna Karenina,” a decadent and sweeping adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s masterpiece, the weight of Knightley’s performance extends beyond her lovely face.
At The Michigan
Knightley is transcendent as Anna, a high-society woman living in St. Petersburg in the late-19th century and unhappily married to a righteous and morally rigid politician (Jude Law, “Sherlock Holmes”). Anna does not recognize her unhappiness until she meets Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, “Savages”), a young cavalry officer with a penchant for looking handsome and breaking hearts. As they fall in love, Anna is ostracized and punished by a cruelly callous society and her squarely honorable husband, and she must sacrifice everything to stay with Vronsky.
Knightley, often accused of overacting, is particularly successful in utilizing her infamous pout to sympathetically show Anna’s selfish and unavoidable deterioration.
Director Joe Wright (“Atonement”), who has collaborated with Knightley in multiple films, ambitiously decided to place most of the film within a resplendent old theater, heavy-handedly hinting that in this society, these characters are always actors on stage, always with an audience. This meta-theatrical move is risky, as it further dramatizes an already melodramatic and tragic romance, but Wright almost makes it work by fully committing the story to his choice. He doesn’t half-ass anything. At times, the flurried confusion of setting everything in one location detracts from the storyline, but all the actors give themselves whole-heartedly to reflect the grandeur of the symbolic theater.
With design work from acclaimed production designer Sarah Greenwood (“Sherlock Holmes”), every costume and prop is luxurious and adds to the sensory delight present in every shot. The costuming is beautiful, each piece chosen to precisely complement the mental state of the characters: Anna begins her journey to societal condemnation wearing demure black, and becomes flashier and more colorful as she defies the unwritten laws. Similarly, the score is impressive and impassioned, exemplifying the sheer strength of the story.
The storyline is a classic tragic romance, and Wright does not attempt to complicate the plot itself — removing some of Tolstoy’s drier segments, like the Russian agrarian system. Instead, the film stays true to the essence of its source by making the visuals exquisite, in line with the expensive and flagrant elite scene of 1874 Russia. It’s as if the film takes place in a different world, where the colors are richer, the people are more gorgeous and pristine — everything amplified, dramatized and beautified.
Though it’s visually a fairy tale, the film doesn't shy from the conflicted social conditions that Tolstoy analyzed so vividly in the novel. This high-falutin Russian society, constantly twirling in place in Wright’s (often oppressive) theater, contrasts directly with crystalline scenes of peasants cutting hay under an unending sky.
Anna is happiest when she is away from St. Petersburg and has the freedom to be with the man she loves, far from the judgment of society. Her persecution as a woman who broke the rules, and her brother’s relative (and humorous) ease in admitting that he cheated on his own wife shows the inherent sexism founded in their society. These are heavy issues at hand, and it’s the actors, in particular Knightley and the inflexible Law, who give them depth.
“Karenina” keeps up with the present theme of making majestic and visually extravagant films, which is often a hit-or-miss strategy. Though its tendency to veer towards melodrama and theatrics at times is overpowering, the film ultimately works because it fully commits to the splendor without losing the story along the way.