Every year, we get plenty of costume dramas and literary adaptations, and while they come in a lot of shapes and sizes, generally they can be reduced to their essential components: flowing gowns, antiquated hairdos, rampant tastefulness. A segment of moviegoers will always love these movies simply for their pleasing familiarity, but that doesn't stop filmmakers from trying to monkey with the formula, whether it's by throwing '70s rock songs into a 14th-century setting (A Knight's Tale), by bringing Shakespeare into the modern age (10 Things I Hate About You, the Ethan Hawke Hamlet), or just being by Baz Luhrmann. No matter the specific approach, these re-imagined films are all trying to prove how relevant their stories are to today's moviegoer. It can be imaginative, but it can also be annoyingly gimmicky, calling attention to how "irreverent" the filmmakers are.
What makes the new Anna Karenina so satisfying is that it's a "re-imagined" adaptation that's clever without pulling you out of the story it's telling. For people convinced they won't see a Leo Tolstoy adaptation in any form, director Joe Wright's take on the material won't be radical enough to make them change their mind. But this Anna Karenina manages to say something about its story's era in a way that's powerfully universal: It's tasteful without being so Tasteful.
The movie takes place in Russia in the 1870s, just as in the book, where we meet Anna (Keira Knightley), the wife of a prestigious government official, Karenin (Jude Law). Their stability is soon threatened when she meets Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a young officer with the sort of smoldering eyes that are almost always a passport to adultery in these sorts of films. Anna and Vronksy know the implications of what would happen if they act on their desire for each other. Of course, they do it anyway.
Literary adaptations are like a band doing a cover of a popular song: They either go faithful to show reverence to the original, or they go in a completely different direction in the hopes of bringing something new to a tune you know so well. If a guy like Luhrmann has made a career out of doing the latter, Wright has stayed with the former. His first two films, Pride & Prejudice and Atonement, didn't try to ruffle too many feathers, staying largely faithful to their source material. But with Anna Karenina, he made the decision right before production began to stage most of the film in a decrepit theater, with different settings sometimes signified by backdrops changing behind the actors as they move through space.
Such a gambit could be incredibly cutesy, calling attention to the logistical challenges of mounting this film rather than actually telling a story. But for the most part, Wright manages to do that rare thing with a "re-imagining": staying faithful while also jolting the audience into seeing the text with new eyes.
Part of this success stems from the fact that this overtly theatrical approach actually serves Tolstoy's tale. By housing all the actors in the same physical space, Wright's Anna Karenina underlines a sense of claustrophobia that traps the characters in their particular fates. Rarely have I so palpably felt a character's inability to move freely through her world because of her divided devotion. (After spending time with her beloved Vronsky, Anna returns to her home and Karenin, who, in the reality of this film, is in the next "room.") And if Anna feels hemmed in, so does everyone else in the movie, with Anna's brother (Matthew Macfadyen) and his best friend (Domhnall Gleeson) and the rest of Russian society residing in this large theater. Cleverly, Wright has created a visual representation of a community in which the hustle and bustle of regular lives is never simply "background" but part of the fabric of Anna and Vronsky's doomed love.
Of course, none of this would matter much if you didn't care about the people in Anna Karenina, but Knightley and Taylor-Johnson make for a fetching pair. Knightley remains a wildly uneven actress, but this is her third film with Wright, and some of the twitchy mannerisms that she displays with other directors aren't present here. Her Anna is a woman fully consumed by her passion for this young man, and when she finally has him, the character changes in a way that allows Knightley to show a side of her that we haven't seen much. As for Taylor-Johnson, he's quickly becoming one of our best young actors. Recently turned 22, he's someone who's been good in everything from Kick-Ass to Nowhere Boy to Savages. That's some range of films, and now with Anna Karenina, he can check off "leading man" from his to-do list.
From the beginning of his career, Wright has always been a bit of a showoff. Even in Pride & Prejudice, he figured out a way to make the stereotypical "ballroom dance scene" engaging by following Knightley and Macfadyen all in one shot. He's done long, unbroken tracking shots in Atonement and in his change-of-pace action movie Hanna as well, and now in Anna Karenina he tops himself with several visual doozies. Again and again, Wright (working with a script from Tom Stoppard) figures out ways to enhance the emotions and drama of scenes without patting himself on the back too strenuously.
It's impossible for a stage-bound Anna Karenina not to feel a little artificial: You never quite forget that you're watching a production. But that works to the film's advantage as well, showing how these individuals really are just characters in a grand drama, their fates predetermined. Wright is best known for these types of award-horny prestige pictures, and even with Anna Karenina he can't fully avoid a certain amount of stodgy tastefulness. (And Law in particular seems to be shackled to his character's muted melancholy.) But for once, Wright seems to have figured out how to meld tastefulness with passion. He hasn't "reinvented" Anna Karenina or made it hip. But like with any good adaptation, he has pulled out the best elements of the source material and found a new way to make them speak to us. And he managed to do it without any Thin Lizzy.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.