Joe Wright’s stagey adaptation of Tolstoy
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
Rating: R Grade: A-
To fully appreciate what director Joe Wright and screenwriter/playwright Tom Stoppard have wrought with their adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s classic tale of adultery among the 19th century Russian aristocracy, audiences should prime themselves with Wright’s surreal battlefield interlude from “Atonement.” Working from the romantic novel by Ian McEwan, Wright and Christopher Hampton (writer and producer of the 1988 version of “Dangerous Liaisons”) plunged us into a dangerously turbulent ocean of personal tragedy that forced a young working class striver (James McAvoy) into desperate straits, ultimately into a world war he and the world were totally unprepared for. The young hero was a bit of a dreamer, seeking education as a means of pulling himself up the social and cultural ladder, so it was fitting that as he crossed the battlefield, his nightmarish perception would be drawn from an “Inferno”-based fever dream. Wright’s images, full of dark fantasy from museum galleries, remained with me far longer than the sad story itself.
“Anna Karenina,” not surprisingly, latches onto a powerful conceit of its own – the idea of life played out on a constantly shifting Old World stage, jazzed up with a sensual restlessness and humor that matches up with the notion that 19th century society and the theater are both subject to rules of order that cannot be circumvented. Russian society dictated that the natural order of family had little to do with love and women were not considered autonomous figures in charge of their own destiny. Free will and the freedom to act with impunity were granted only to men.
So, when Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen) cheats on his wife, he prances about like the red rooster he is, and his virtuous sister Anna (Keira Knightley) arrives to smooth things over with his wife and family, making sure her sister-in-law realizes her place in the home, the dark unattractive corner of the stage that contrasts with the vital workplace, taprooms and roiling streets where Oblonsky is busy being a man.
But a different kind of manhood entices Anna during this trip to her brother’s. She locks eyes on Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a dashing and handsome chap in whom she sees both honor and charisma, which inspires rebellious feelings in her. Her husband Karenin (Jude Law) is an endless pool of honor and benign self-righteousness, but he lacks passion (and despite being played by Law, it seems, the deficiency in terms of fire in the belly may have been a defect of birth). Suddenly, Anna is open to wants and desires.
Knightley shows us how intoxicating these feelings are and in the staging, Wright transforms the drama and the sets into a dance, at once formal and structured, but also fluid and with a wild grace all its own. The stages pop up in spots like designs in a child’s book, while at other times, we rush alongside characters that have taken our hands and drag us behind and through the scenes and there is a sense of breathlessness that overtakes us. Unfortunately though, such a pace is hard to maintain and somewhere past the halfway point, Wright’s production loses a bit of steam and falls back on the more mundane elements – the rules and the drama.
But all isn’t lost, even in these moments, because “Anna Karenina” is blessed with the presence of Knightley and Law who are working from opposite ends of the dramatic spectrum but do so in the service of the same overall goal. Knightley’s dizzying physical expression of passion and way with language creates a full-bodied Anna who is not only a woman of her times, but familiar to audiences today. And Law’s bitter reserve melts slowly, revealing a man trapped in his own fashion, by the social order of the day, who longs to break with convention.
Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com