“Anna Karenina” is one of those big, unwieldy Tolstoy novels that English professors love to assign to scare the crap out of unsuspecting freshmen.
But underneath the thousands of characters, dry-as-toast prose, and exhaustive passages equating love to suffering (because when you’re Russian in the 1800s you equate everything to suffering), beats a fiery heart as passionate as it is tragic.
The latest film adaptation of “Anna Karenina” bores right to the core of this story by rather cleverly giving the proceedings a creative jolt by having nearly all the action play out inside an antiquated theater.
What initially feels like a gimmick, with minimal props and cunning use of space (backstage doubling as the streets, a private box as a bedroom, etc.), winds up being a rather brilliant way of drawing the audience into the story.
By setting most of the action on the stage, the movie establishes the artifice of the aristocracy of Czarist Russia as it slowly morphs into the conventional storytelling of a traditional costume drama.
For those of you smart enough to avoid those “Karenina”-assigning professors, allow me to catch you up.
Anna (played brilliantly here by Keira Knightley) is a dutiful wife and mother married to the saintly, if not a little emotionally distant statesman Count Karenin (Jude Law).
Anna travels to Moscow to help patch up the marriage of her brother, Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen), a fun-loving rascal guilty of repeatedly stepping out on his sweet wife, Dolly (Kelly Macdonald).
It is while in Moscow that the beautiful and charming Anna becomes the object of affection for a handsome young cavalry officer named Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson).
Anna spurns Vronsky’s repeated advances and flees back home to the countryside. Vronsky quickly follows and Anna relents as the two fall into a passionate, all-consuming affair with heartbreaking results.
This being Tolstoy there are plenty of little side plots floating around, but the screenplay adaptation by literary heavyweight Tom Stoppard does a fantastic job of cutting right to the heart of the matter.
Director Joe Wright has a lot of fun with the theater conceit but also is very careful to make sure it never overpowers the film. I could have actually used a little more of it, but I understand his wanting to get out of the way of the story.
Anna’s tale still holds weight after all these years, not only because she is a character at the vanguard of the women’s liberation movement, but because her story illustrates what an eternally powerful and potentially destructive force love can be.
But setting aside the innovative staging and timeless themes, “Anna Karenina” doesn’t come close to working without Knightley.
She is a fine actress for whom winning an Oscar (could it be for this?) is now more a question of when than if. Smart money says when it does happen it will be in one of Wright’s movies.
This is the third time the director and actress have teamed up (“Pride & Prejudice” and “Atonement” being the others) and Wright has shown a knack for getting the most out of the talented Knightley.
There is a freshness and daring to “Anna Karenina,” which is something that probably hasn’t been said in a good 100 years. Yet in addition to being a very good movie, it may have pulled off the even greater feat of making European Lit 101 a little less terrifying.
“Anna Karenina” is rated R for some sexuality and violence.