"Pride and Prejudice" and "Atonement," the last two acclaimed novel adaptations directed by Joe Wright, were nominated for 11 Academy Awards between them. Which is part of what makes Wright's new take on Leo Tolstoy's epic "Anna Karenina," with Keira Knightley in the title role, such a hugely anticipated film during this awards season. With few Best Picture contenders in the Oscar race at this point -- and the pedigree of Wright, Knightley and Tolstoy -- can "Anna Karenina" take the lead?
Judging from the early reviews: maybe? With "Anna Karenina" -- which is out in the U.K. on Friday and also screened at the Toronto International Film Festival -- Wright takes Tolstoy's classic prose and filters it through a marvel of modern filmmaking. The entire movie (with apparently few exceptions) is set inside a massive theater that bends and folds to the venue of the scene; the actors are literally performing "Anna Karenina" on a stage. (For an explanation as to why this was done and a look at how Wright accomplished it, check out this video.)
While that type of stylistic flourish hasn't prevented Wright from winning awards kudos before ("Atonement" has a particularly original mise en scene, especially for a film that was written off as mere Oscar bait), it might be a bridge too far for some when it comes to "Anna Karenina." As Hollywood Elsewhere blogger Jeffrey Wells noted in his rave review, some audience members at the Toronto International Film Festival were openly mocking the film during moments of "high emotion."
THR critic Todd McCarthy didn't go that far -- his review is of the mixed-positive variety -- but he did write that the conceit loses steam as the film moves along.
As intriguing as it may be in big set pieces such as the ball and in small details such as a child's toy train suddenly becoming a full-sized one on which crucial scenes are played out, the technique becomes palpably constricting in the second half, where the abridgments of Stoppard's script become all too noticeable.
As EW.com's Dave Karger wrote on Twitter, Wright's "bold directorial choices will turn some off."
Of course, that risk is what makes "Anna Karenina" different. In his three-out-of-five star review for The Guardian, critic Peter Bradshaw echoed those thoughts: "The Wright/Stoppard Anna Karenina is not a total success, but it's a bold and creative response to the novel."
Even with mixed reviews, most critics seem to agree that the film is beautiful, thoughtful and lined up for a boat load of Oscar nominations in the technical categories. Knightley may also earn a second Best Actress nod -- her previous one came after working with Wright on "Pride and Prejudice."
"Keira Knightley as Anna -- a Best Actress performance if I've ever seen one," Wells wrote, before adding that the detractors of the film -- who laughed during his screening -- should be "slapped around." (The man is a big fan.)
"Anna Karenina" is out in U.S. theaters on Nov. 16. The film is out in the U.K. now.