My parents divorced over Russian Literature.

It might not have been the only factor, because yikes, but it was certainly a pebble on the pile of discontent. One of them adored it and the other hated it. Growing up knowing the obsession and the aversion I actively avoided all Russian literature and all films related to those books. It was just easier to remove myself from the argument rather than choose sides.

So I never read Anna Karenina. Never even saw the Garbo film. I knew things, of course. The book is about a woman who has an affair and offs herself because society hates her seeking pleasure over duty (if it’s been out a hundred years it’s not a spoiler guys, so please don’t whine). It’s also about one man’s spiritual quest to understand love or scything or something.

Being fairly uninformed on the subject it allowed me to enter into Joe Wright’s film with far fewer expectations than I might have had. I knew it was his third film with Keira Knightly and that there was a theater motif and that the trailer had lots of pretty visuals that could in no way sustain an entire movie.

But I went anyways. And I was…transformed? Back when Cloud Atlas‘s trailer dropped and that piano resonated and the footage unspooled before my eyes I salivated. That film was going to remake cinema and blow my mind. It was going to be the spiritual experience I crave but rarely actually experience in a theater. Maybe it would even forever alter the way we experience film.

It didn’t. It had some cool ideas, some racist ideas and a whole lot of flash. I liked it but I felt the shadow of depression exiting the theater and realizing it hadn’t been what I so fervently desired. But in the end it’s all right, because Anna Karenina was. It burrowed itself into my brain and captured me. Forced me to ignore all the little things that should have engendered irritation. There was an affair, a suicide by train, drawing room drama, dead women and a vague whiff of sexism–that never quite reached my nose as I was too enchanted. Leaning forward in my seat resting my chin on my knuckles and watching Wright’s perfect blend of theatre and film that can probably only appeal to a very small portion of the theater-going population.

High society, like that that frames Anna Karenina, is very theatrical in its own right. Everyone has a role assigned at birth that they are demanded to play. You do not go off book. You cannot deviate. You honor the script put in your hands and if you’re lucky you’ll get a few moments in the wings to be yourself. That conceit is central to Wright’s film. So to is the conceit of life being but a dance with many partners. He blends them together building a movie that illustrates everything absolutely perfect about modern theater.

There is a rhythm to the film. It’s a lyrical waltz we know every step to. But instead of being bored we are pulled in. Whisked away by the finest of dancers. It begins as soon as the curtain is raised. The first twenty minutes move by in a blur of sheer ecstasy for this particular viewer as each scene bleeds into the one before in what feels like one continuous take. It’s all so very stylized and so very potent and yet, so very natural.

Much of that is because of Keira Knightley. With her slim frame and natural grace she’s every bit the dancer required of the role, but she manages to make Anna so very human too. The struggle between duty and lust is painted on her face in every scene and her descent into abject depression is haunting. When she finally shuffles off this mortal coil Knightley’s brought us so low and pulled us in so deep that people in every single screening I’ve been to have rushed out of the theater in horror.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who you’re probably more familiar with as the titular Kick-Ass, is sexy as hell as Vronsky, but then with that perfectly groomed moustache and mop of golden hair he’s also every bit the Vronsky sleaze who helps drive poor Anna to madness. And Jude Law, as Karenin, is suitably authoritative, but the neatest feat is how he almost makes Karenin…sympathetic.

The number of other brilliant British actors in this film is staggering. You’d think you were watching a Harry Potter film. You’ll find Ruth Wilson (shortlisted for the new Avengers film and wonderful with Idris Elba in Luther), Downton Abbey‘s Michelle Dockery, Olivia Williams, Holliday Grainger, Emily Watson, Shirley Henderson and Kelly Macdonald. There’s even a blink and you’ll miss it appearance of Game of Throne‘s Samwell Tarley, one John Bradley!

But it is Alicia Vikander and Domhnall Gleeson, as the lovers Kitty and Levin, who are practically revelations. They’re something sweet in a world doomed by strict societal boundaries. Both are delicate and small in a film of bombast. They might even have been overshadowed by Knightley, Taylor-Johnson and Law, but they’re naturalism in a film dictated by expressionism. So they become a welcome counterpoint–one reinforced by the Wright’s and Tom Stoppard’s decision to move many of their scenes out of the theater where all the action takes place and into the “real” world.

Stoppard’s script is supremely economical. Every single word has a purpose and whole scenes seem to take place in a single sentence. He’s shredded the original work to pieces and built it up as an adaptation but also as another beast entirely. This film comes so close to being a musical that it’s stunning. The key moments are often played sans dialogue with only Dario Marianelli’s impactful score and Seamus McGarvey’s gorgeous cinematography there to convey what Stoppard has put on the page.

Yet it works. This cast is so expressive and Wright’s handling of the scenes so exact that these big moments play like a four-minute aria instead of a fifteen second shot. It’s a heady alchemical blend of a lot of forms of entertainment I adore. Enough to pull me in and want to break my lifelong rule.

That’s right. After seeing Anna Karenina a second time I actually went out and bought the book.

  • Beautiful review. And, I love the conclusion… I haven’t seen the Garbo version either, but I’m sure it’s more eh, shall we say.. dated? And of course traditional. This was a very courageous film… I found it unapologetically stylized, and it really seemed to know what it was doing, if that makes sense. Deliberate. Also, that’s Stoppard for you, too! It sounds like it struck you like “Cloud Atlas” struck me.