It’s Tolstoy, and all the usual suspects are here: Keira Knightley is our Anna, the eponymous heroine, Aaron Taylor Johnson, our Count Vronsky, the dashing, equestrian swordsman, with the moral code of a cossack and Jude Law as you have never seen him, as the cuckolded hubby, Alexi Karenin.
Dozens of versions have been made of this famous story of lust, adultery and betrayal, most famously with the great Greta Garbo and Frederic March. Turner Classics loves that one.
But let us say without hesitating, that this version, directed by Joe Wright, is the most beautiful of them all, even with arguable quirks, it’s the most stunning film to look at since “Dr. Zhivago.” Prepare yourself for enchantment.
Once again we visit Tolstoy’s snowy, icy world, warmed by the caprices of this timeless scarlet woman of literature. Tolstoy’s Anna is still locked into a loveless marriage with bookish, proper Judge Karenin. Society at this level is a playground for men, but a social straight jacket for women, who must close their eyes to their husbands’ flirtations.
Should they themselves stray, their world crashes in on them, and they are clothed in the rags of harlots and cast asunder.
Unlike the chilly Garbo, Knightley’s Anna, played with girlish wonder, boils up out of the bodice. Her eyes glisten like fuses when Vronsky turns on the charm.
This then, is not your old English teacher’s or mother’s Karenina. In this version, Knightly doffs the chilly satins and lace of ladyhood, and throws herself forcefully into adultery with all of the sweat, tears and heavy breathing we usually ascribe to a Penelope Cruz or Rachel Weisz.
Joe Wright, with a masterful script by Tom Stoppard, breaks open Tolstoy’s 1877 novel and whips up a modern, even futuristic mosaic of color and breathtaking beauty.
Wright opens the film like a box of toys, taking us into a miniature theater from whence all will play out. Scenes open on a stage, and we watch in amazement as the players walk past the audience to wide open dreamscapes, with Zhivago-like pastures of wheat and snow, icy trains whipping through Chekovian blizzards. Even a military horse race will roar past the feet of the first seated. Here Vronsky will fall, and the fate of a majestic white stallion will herald tragedies to come.
Wright employs a masterful parade of British players who do what Brit players always do in period pieces. It’s their garden of expertise.
Always wary of what tricks Knightly might employ next, I must confess to being seduced into her fan base on this one. In every scene, she has a grip on the character, and in the final moments when she struggles with her torments, she succeeds.
Aaron Taylor Johnson’s Vronsky is a major disappointment. Vronsky is properly played with greater strength, with more masculine, seductive swagger, (Keirnon Moore, Frederic March) and darker, dangerous tones. Even “Superman” Christopher Reeves took a turn at it. Vronsky plays it close to the edge of “Toy Boy.”
Research shows us Tolstoy’s Vronsky as “Squarely built, dark and handsome, good humored and with short cropped dark hair.” Sadly, Daniel Craig has gone a-Bonding.
Taylor-Johnson, with his bleached pompadour poof, regrettably gives us a soft, boyish, delicate guardsman, more of a pool boy than cavalry officer, a Troy Donahue- Vronsky to be mothered. I suspect Tolstoy, the masculine Russian he was, would not be happy, and I know that if Jude Law, who steals the movie every time he has a scene, had been assigned that role, the fires of Karenina/Vronsky would have torched the Kremlin itself.
But that is the smallest crack in a beautifully crafted piece of art that we see here. Joe Wright’s “Anna Karenina” is a big surprise and the most sumptuous feast for the eyes.
J.P. Devine is a former stage and screen actor.