4 stars. Critic’s Pick. In a jewel box of a theater, the curtain goes up, the music swells and the camera itself swoons as the players take their places in “Anna Karenina,” Joe Wright’s ingenious, intoxicating adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s novel, in which the author’s dense tale of love, adultery, politics and aristocratic manners has been brilliantly re-imagined. Presenting Stoppard’s glittering dialogue and judicious compression against an ever-changing backdrop that transforms the set into an office, cafe, palace and horse track in the blink of an eye, Wright stages “Anna Karenina” with equal parts precision, playfulness and passion as lively tableau vivant gradually gives way to tragic waltz. (Particularly transporting are a clever sequence set in Oblonsky’s office, an excruciating horse-race and an unspoken conversation between Levin and Kitty that Wright stages with sweetness and simplicity.) With the help of Stoppard’s shrewd judgment, Wright has homed in on the most essential romantic and philosophical messages of “Anna Karenina” -- its clear-eyed appraisal of the artifice and its abiding humanism and belief in moral agency -- and brought them to nervy, thrilling life and renewed meaning. Like the masterpiece that inspired it, “Anna Karenina” poses some of life’s toughest questions -- about how to be good, how to be bad and the costs of both -- but with nuance and sensuousness that make even its most profound truths levitate on flights of soaring imagination and pure poetry. Wright’s “Anna Karenina” sings, dances and finally soars, even as its legendary heroine plunges to her most self-destructive depths.
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 fellow performers but mute spectators, awed and aghast. In a way this is opera, but grand opera, with the emotions running at fever pitch and the actors as likely to dance (choreography by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui) as walk. Vronsky’s and Anna’s meeting at a formal ball expresses their love through dance, exactly as the classic routines of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers did in their ’30s musicals. As Vronsky and Anna whirl, the other dancers freeze. Everyone can detect the expert passion in their movements; the couple might have been spotted in the act of love. The novel has been filmed at least two dozen times, including silent and sound-movie versions, in 1927 and 1935, with Greta Garbo, and a 1948 film with Vivien Leigh. Two of the most incandescent stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age would be tough competition for Knightley, if she were playing the same kind of Anna. But guided by Wright, her director for Pride and Prejudice and Atonement, 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. She helps make Anna Karenina an operatic romance worth singing about.
4 stars! Anna Karenina rewires Tolstoy's classic tale of marriage-wrecking, reputation-ruining passion into a streamlined, sexy and playfully satirical 21st-century design. It's an eye-popping marriage of artifice and heart. Beautiful Keira Knightley suffers radiantly as the doomed, adulterous Russian aristocrat. Joe Wright, who directed her in Pride and Prejudice and Atonement, clearly adores her regal cheekbones and swanlike neck, lighting and costuming her to brilliant effect. Jude Law triumphs as her cold-fish husband, Alexi. As Vronsky, her shallow cavalry officer lover, Aaron Taylor-Johnson is all dash and dazzle, to the points of his waxed mustache tips. Tom Stoppard's scalpel-sharp script is a masterpiece of compression, ingeniously compacting 900 pages of realist drama into a swirl of dazzling language and high-brow, low-key wit. In a stroke of showman's genius, Wright reconceived the production like a theater piece, setting most of the action inside an old stage and presenting the story through stylized theatrical stagecraft. Wright makes the production mechanics transparent. When the chorus changes the scenery, it's part of the show. It's a wonderful metaphor for the mind-set of decadent pre-revolutionary Russia, where all the world's a stage and every social interchange is frosted with role-playing and artifice. His propulsively edited version of the story's centerpiece horse race is inspired.