Historical costume dramas based on literary classics are all over theaters during the awards-baiting winter months. They fill their casts with great actors, place these actors in meticulously decorated rooms and have them speak the words of the world's greatest writers.
Also, a whole lot of them suck.
Sure, craft and care ooze from the pores of such productions. But filmmakers often handle these timeless stories like they're fragile antiques, at risk of breaking if too much intensity is applied. Viewers can't be blamed for approaching them like medicine rather than enjoying them as vibrant, living works of art.
For his new adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, director Joe Wright gambles big-time. The basic story is familiar to generations of college comp-lit students. Anna (Keira Knightley), the wife of a government minister (Jude Law) in 1874 Russia, begins a passionate affair with a soldier (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), which threatens to destroy her standing in society. Meanwhile, the simple landowner and farmer Konstantin Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) attempts to woo his heart's desire, Kitty (Alicia Vikander).
The raw material of Tolstoy's text is all there in Tom Stoppard's screenplay; it's how Wright envisions it that makes this film so compelling. Much of the story is presented like a theatrical production, complete with painted backdrops, dramatic lighting cues and sequences in which the characters view events as though they themselves are spectators at a play. Wright also shows us the crew at work, whether operating machinery in the rafters or setting up props.
Wright's conceit could feel contrived, but it almost never does. The interplay between obvious artifice and the story's drama gives the film a jolt of new energy, reminding us that the power in Tolstoy's narrative isn't found in period costumes and exotic locations. But this take on Anna Karenina isn't just an abstract exercise in literary analysis. There's an absolutely lovely scene in which Levin meets with Kitty over a word-guessing game. Both timid souls try to reveal their feelings while fearing what the other might feel, making this simple attempt at courtship unfold with raw emotion. It illustrates Tolstoy's notion that the heart that "wants what it wants" should face consequences that honorable love does not.
The film downplays the heightened emotions of its central love triangle for quite some time but becomes a huge letdown when it starts to wallow in melodrama. Knightley can be an effective actress, but she doesn't know how to play Anna's tormented attempts to break from Karenin. The third act's overwrought confrontations crank up the sense of supreme emotional consequence when we should be questioning whether Anna deserves the happiness she seeks.
Though Knightley's performance is flawed, she doesn't dampen the potency of Wright's best moments: the solitary first dance between Anna and her beloved; the horse race where she exposes her feelings to the world; the stunning final shot. Overall, Anna Karenina proves how much vitality and theatricality can be found in 140-year-old books.