I arrived in Toronto on a muggy afternoon to be blown away by Joe Wright's adaptation -- by way of Tom Stoppard -- of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. I saw the film at a private space in the Hazelton Hotel, fitted out with leather couches and bottled water like a mogul's personal screening room.
This doesn't mean every viewer was up to snuff. Pre-screening, I said to my neighbor, I never pictured Vronsky as blond (he's played by goldilocksed Aaron Taylor-Johnson.) To which she replied, "Who's Vronsky?
This little exchange gives some idea of what Joe Wright and his brilliant team are up against in our post-literate "who's Vronsky?" world.
Wright's up against a lot more and should brace for some critical roughing up. Tolstoy's novel famously portrays Anna, a pillar of high society in 19th century Russia married to a government official, who falls for dashing cavalry officer Count Vronsky whom she meets -- in Tolstoy's indelible scene -- in a snowy train station. Tolstoy's "Anna" offers penetrating psychological insights so true-feeling you could reach out and touch his characters. Yet Wright has daringly -- some would say preposterously -- given Tolstoy's masterpiece of realism a heavily stylized re-do by camping it in a vast decaying theater. Periodically the action jumps the artificial theater space to embrace the natural world beyond.
The film opens with the babble of an orchestra tuning up, as various players of the story -- set in Imperial Russia in 1874 -- enact disjointed scenes from their daily routines on a stage fronted by footlights. The synchronized movements of a herd of government bureaucrats (the world of Anna's husband Karenin, played by Jude Law) are as stylized and balletic as a theater piece by Pina Bausch.
We're given fair warning: this is no conventional costumer/period piece. You either buy into it right away. Or say, What the... ? Or get seduced into Wright's daring vision, a bit the way virtuous Anna (Keira Knightley) gets worn down by Count Vronsky.
True to the novel, the fevered theatricalized world of Anna and Vronsky is interwoven with the narrative of Kitty and Levin, an idealistic landowner attached to the soil, whose belief in lifelong marital commitment acts as a foil to Vronsky and his roistering cavalry officer comrades joking about available virgins; and as a counter-view to the decline of Anna and Vronsky, who are ostracized by a hypocritical society for flouting the rules.
What overrides the formal challenges Wright throws at the viewer is the gasp-making visual splendor of the film's many set pieces -- like the ball where Vronsky (in white) and Anna (in black lace) unite as lovers in a rapturous waltz that makes entirely explicit the erotic content of the male/female pas de deux in ballet. Knightley has said that a later sex scene shot in closeup was quite literally a dance, which would be evident in a wide shot. This is one hot period piece.
Other marvelous scenes include an indoor horse race where Vronsky's white mount stumbles and he's forced to shoot it; and an "outdoor" skating scene set within the theater. Such visual excitements keep "Anna" enthralling.
Wright, with his background in the visual arts, has clearly looked at a lot of theater, dance, and art to create this adaptation. Count among his influences Lars Von Trier, Robert Wilson, Brecht, along with ballet and avant garde dance. He's also drawn a remarkable parallel between the theatrical artificiality of 19th century Russian society, which fetishized and acted out French styles, and his stagey remake.
A couple of cavils concerning casting. Jude Law is pitch-perfect as poor cuckolded Karenin. In some ways Knightley -- who's become Wright's muse -- seems born to play Anna. Yet her 21st century girlish slimness runs counter to the more Rubenesque ideal of feminine beauty in Tolstoy's day. Domhnall Gleeson's Levin comes off too buffoonish, while Alicia Vikander's Kitty invites wonder at what he sees in her -- the pair don't do justice to one of literature's great love affairs.
As Vronsky, Aaron Taylor-Johnson is virile and rakish and enamored all at once; this is a star-making turn. Also, for the gawkers among us, the actor (22) has added the name Taylor to reflect his union with director/artist Sam Taylor-Wood (45) with whom he has two daughters. Now there's a movie for the current age.