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On Movies: An irresistible new version of 'Anna Karenina'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 23, 2012 - In adapting a classic work of literature to the screen, the last thing most filmmakers would want to do is to suggest that what we are watching is a stage play. Yet the first image of director Joe Wright's irresistible new version of Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina" is a theatrical stage with a closed curtain. Superimposed on the curtain are the words "Imperial Russia 1874."

Then the curtain opens, and we find ourselves in an enchanted world where the camera is bracingly free to scoot around, first backstage and up into the wings, then out into the streets of St. Petersburg. In one breathtaking shot, the back wall of the theater slides open to reveal a vast and empty field of snow with a dacha lit in the distance.

Without sacrificing anything central to Tolstoy's story of Anna Karenina and her desperate, doomed adulterous love affair with the dashing Count Alexei Vronsky, director Wright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard create a world that is not so much fantastic as hyper-realistic. At times, as the camera sweeps through the vast halls of the palaces of the wealthy and comes upon the heroine and her lover in a mad embrace, we seem to be watching a ballet or an opera. Of course it's not real, Wright and Stoppard seem to be saying. It's a story from the 19th century, told in one of the greatest of all novels. It's about a world long vanished from the earth, one we -- and the filmmakers -- can only imagine.

In a movie that lasts more than two hours but never drags, Stoppard and Wright even give sufficient screen time to the crucial subplot of "Anna Karenina," the search for love, truth and ultimately a life of peasant simplicity of the intellectual Levin. Levin represents Tolstoy himself. Beneath Levin's scraggly beard, by the way, is Domhnall Gleeson, Bill Weasley in the "Harry Potter" movies.

But the focus is on the title character, played with great range of emotion by Keira Knightley; on her stolid ("He's a saint!") husband (Jude Law), and on Count Vronsky, the glittering cavalry officer who steals her heart and soul. (Vronsky is played with appropriate bravura and petulance by Aaron Taylor Johnson, who was John Lennon in "Nowhere Boy.).

The story begins with Anna being summoned from the capital of St. Petersburg to Moscow, where her libertine brother (Matthew Macfadyen) needs help in persuading his long-suffering wife that she needs to forgive him for his most recent act of adultery. At the Moscow station, she is introduced to Count Vronsky, and the two are immediately fascinated by one another. As they are staring into each other's eyes, a workman is crushed beneath the wheels of a locomotive. Count Vronsky wins Anna's heart by giving money to his family.

In Moscow and back in St. Petersburg, Vronsky pursues Anna. Anna resists, but Vronsky is a charmer. Plus one heck of a horseman. Pretty soon, with the camera swirling above them, they are in bed.

Their affair catches fire. Anna falls so desperately in love that she asks her husband for a divorce. He tells her if she leaves him she will take nothing with her from the marriage, and that includes the couple's 8-year-old son. She is faced with a cruel decision.

"Anna Karenina" is a deeply romantic movie, but the setting, after all, is 19th century Russia, and considerable weight is also given to Tolstoy's social criticism and what might be called his proto-feminism. It's hard to find fault with this movie, which moves skillfully from something like a romantic comedy -- in tone, an operetta -- to deep, operatic tragedy. The film is narratively gripping all the way through, and, to the great credit of Wright, Stoppard, cinematographer Seamus McGarvey and production designer Sarah Greenwood, it's a visual marvel.

Opened Wednesday Nov. 21

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