Anna Karenina: Keira Knightley Gives Her All for Love

All the world's a stage in Joe Wright's splendid version of the Tolstoy novel

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Laurie Sparham / Focus Features

Two people fall madly in love and think no one notices, because they see only each other. But the heat of their heedless erotic glow is bound to attract attention; it singes onlookers, upends the natural order of propriety, sets tongues to wagging — especially if the young man is a dashing Russian cavalry officer, and the lady in question is the wife of a revered government official and the mother of a child she adores. So nakedly operatic is the passion of Count Vronsky and Anna Karenina, they may as well be doing it on stage.

In the intelligently ecstatic new adaptation of Anna Karenina adaptation written by Tom Stoppard and directed by Joe Wright, all the world’s a stage — a 19th-century theater whose ornate confines are the setting for scenes taking place in Anna’s home town of St. Petersburg and in the social and political center of Moscow. Steeplechase horses gallop across the boards; a quiet dinner or a military banquet may be staged there. And when Anna (Keira Knightley) and Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) meet, the theatrical intensity of their first moments in each other’s arms makes those around them not so much fellow performers as mute spectators, awed and aghast.

(READ: Josh Tyrangiel’s profile of Keira Knightley)

Leo Tolstoy’s 1877 novel, which generations of schoolchildren and moviegoers know as the story of the woman who threw herself under a train for love, fulfills Friedrich Schiller’s definition of adulterous love as a “bourgeois tragedy.” For eight years, Anna has pursued marriage with Judge Alexei Karenin (righteous, sensible Jude Law), for whom she feels respect; her love is poured into their beautiful son Seryozha (Oskar McNamara). A more worldly woman, the Countess Vronsky (Olivia Williams), counsels Anna to follow her erotic intuitions, saying, “I’d rather end up wishing I hadn’t than wishing I had, wouldn’t you?” The countess’s seraphic blond son, Alexei Vronsky, will test that thesis by becoming the object of Anna’s obsessions. Knowing she will be ostracized by the society she was born into, Anna plunges into the affair.

Wright, who directed Knightley to her finest performances in the 2005 Pride & Prejudice and the 2007 Atonement, is known more as an expert judge of actors and emotions than as a cinematic revolutionary; and his strategy of setting most of the action on a stage takes some getting used to. In early scenes, the headlong bustle of Seamus McGarvey’s camera and the arch playing of the actors prime the spectator for an Anna Karenina as opera buffo. A scene transition from the offices of Anna’s reprobate brother Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen, who played Darcy in Pride & Prejudice) to a Moscow restaurant, where Oblonsky is to dine with his lack-luck friend Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), is filmed as one, prodigiously elaborate tracking shot. Dancing notaries are replaced by pirouetting waiters, and flute players stroll past a maitre d’ in white face with apple-red cheeks — all choreographed by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui to Dario Marianelli’s luscious score.

(READ: Corliss’s review of Keira Knightley in Joe Wright’s Atonement)

The movie’s pace continues furioso, but the characters and actors soon find a home in this bold new structure. In a way this is opera, but grand opera, with the emotions running at fever pitch and Vronsky and Anna whirling toward their doomed destiny. Their meeting at a formal ball expresses love through dance, exactly as the classic routines of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers did in their ’30s musicals. The other couples freeze as Vronsky and Anna dance past them. He lifts her high, and when she comes down they are alone in a spotlight, as if they had erased the outside world. But every onlooker can detect the expert passion in their movements; the couple might have been spotted in the act of love.

(READ: Corliss’s tribute to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers)

In tone less Russian, or British, than Italian, Wright’s Anna Karenina has crucial links to Luchino Visconti’s 1954 Senso, in which a woman of title (the great Alida Valli) risks her marriage, her standing and her pride on an affair with a selfish young officer (Farley Granger). It also pulses with a hothouse brio worthy of Federico Fellini, until the Tolstoy tale morphs into a kind of Leo Dolce Vita — for this Anna is a modern parable of the instant scandal passion can stoke. Oblonsky’s infidelities to his sweet wife Dolly (Kelly Macdonald) raise only smiles, not eyebrows, because he is a man; but Anna’s affair is a crime against nature, or, worse, propriety. The members of Russian high society need no texts or Tweets to spread news of a princess’s adulterous affair; catty whispers will convey the message nicely. When every intimacy is made public, Anna and Vronsky’s secret ardor is a form of exhibitionism.

(READ: Corliss on Farley Granger and Alida Valli in Senso)
Anna Karenina has been made into at least two dozen films, most of which focus on Vronsky and Anna, turn Karenin into a sneering villain and reduce the screen time of other important characters. (The novel runs 963 pages; you have to cut somewhere.) Stoppard, though, redresses the balance between Vronsky — incarnated by Taylor-Johnson as a mustachioed dandy who may not be quite worthy of Anna’s sacrifice — and the cuckolded husband. As dedicated to his work as to his wife and child, Karenin feels that Russia is betrayed as much as he is by Anna’s affair; if a respected government official is publicly humiliated, so is the country. The young Jude Law might have made an ideal Vronsky; now, stiff-backed and balding, he wins the audience’s admiration and sympathy for a man who keeps trying to do right by the woman who done him wrong.

(READ: Corliss on Aaron Taylor-Johnson in Nowhere Boy)

Stoppard also finds a nice counterpoint between the central affair and Levin’s forlorn love for Dolly’s teenage sister Kitty (Alicia Vikander). A tongue-tied idealist, crushed by Kitty’s early attraction to Vronsky, Levin despairs of wooing her away to the farm and the peasants he cherishes. Levin is also the conduit between the stage world of the upper-class and the stark realities of Russian agrarian life. (In one astonishing moment, Levin stands on the empty stage, whose back wall opens to reveal an actual snowy expanse, onto which he trods.) That the Levin-Dolly story — and its message of domestic hope — can hold our interest amid the Anna-Vronsky maelstrom is thanks largely to the elfin charms, and then gracious maturity, of the dimpled Vikander, star of the Danish film A Royal Affair. This Swedish actress, 24, is startlingly at ease as a Russian countess in an English period drama. On the evidence of her movie magic in this role, she could be headed for a brilliant career.

(READ: Mary Pols on Alicia Vikander in A Royal Affair)

The role of Anna lured two of the most incandescent stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age; Greta Garbo, in both silent and sound-movie versions, in 1927 and 1935, and Vivien Leigh in 1948. This pair would be tough competition for Knightley — if she were playing the same kind of Anna. But guided by Wright, Knightley embodies Anna as a girlish woman who has never felt erotic love; once smitten, she is raised to heavenly ecstasy before tumbling into the abyss of shame. It’s a nervy performance, acutely attuned to the volcanic changes that a naive creature must enjoy and endure on her first leap into mad passion. Knightley helps make Anna Karenina an operatic romance worth singing about.