Wednesday, December 12, 2012


Director Joe Wright breathed life into the often stale literary adaption with his lively 2005 film of Jane Austen’s PRIDE & PREJUDICE.  Sadly, this success was short-lived.  Two years later he turned Ian McEwan’s devastating drama ATONEMENT into a turgid, dreary affair, despite the occasional flourish.  Wright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard double down on flourish in their approach to Leo Tolstoy’s beloved novel, and the results are bracing.  Rather than attempt period realism throughout, the film stages most of its action within the world of the theatre.  Actors, at times changing costume as we watch, enter and exit scenes with theatrical relish, moving from onstage to offstage to backstage as the eager camera follows.  Wright’s film opens with Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley), wife of stalwart government official Karenin (Jude Law), as she travels from St. Petersburg to Moscow to see her brother Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen) and persuade sister-in-law Dolly (Kelly Macdonald) to forgive her husband’s latest dalliance.  While there Anna meets playboy military office Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who is expected to propose to young Kitty (Alicia Vikander).  Kitty has rejected the proposal of Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), a rural landowner who has loved her for years, so she takes offence when Vronsky ignores her and falls for Anna instead.  The soldier pursues the married woman both emotionally and physically until his passion ignites Anna’s own, and tragedy ensues.  The filmmaker’s daring conceptual gambit of equating mid-19th century Russian society with an audience watching a play pays off in spades.  Theatrical artifice makes the ill-fated lovers’ towering emotions, by comparison, less histrionic and more relatable.  At key moments it also beautifully captures Anna’s devastated psychological state.  During her greatest humiliation a spotlight isolates Anna as all actors turn to her and freeze.  Wright elicits fine performances throughout, especially an understated Law and the ebulliently caddish Macfadyen, and has fashioned a spiritually faithful literary adaptation that’s both brazenly theatrical and fiercely cinematic.

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