Directed by Joe Wright
Any discussion of this adaptation must begin with its style, which seems destined to divide audiences between champions and haters. The film is boldly artificial, with a literal stage and proscenium and props that are wheeled around the actors, who move in synchronicity to an unceasing orchestral score. It is, essentially, musical theater without musical numbers, which is a welcome change from the stuffiness that typically characterizes films based on source materials as hallowed as Tolstoy’s novel, on the short-list of the best. But it's used less for thematic purposes (compared to the upcoming Les Misérables adaptation, where it would seem more obviously appropriate) than as a stylistic shorthand to condense the sprawling story down to a manageable length. Rather than a nuanced depiction of feelings that evolve, we get a steely glance, a flash of dramatic lighting, choreography. Boom: instant love affair.
I found this all wildly effective, though it isn’t hard to imagine someone put off by the blatant artificiality, which can be emotionally distancing. Rather than Tolstoy’s utterly real characters, we get Characters, broadly drawn: Lover, Soldier, Victim. The actors (including Keira Knightley as Anna, Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Vronsky, and Alicia Vikander as Kitty) are all effective, but only Jude Law as the tortured husband shows any complexity as he attempts to deal nobly with humiliation.
Karenina’s dalliances through the Russian aristocracy are well known, so it’s startling to see how much life and vitality director Wright (Atonement) brings to the story. Sequences at a ball and a horse race are masterpieces of direction and sound design, and the closing sequence depicts the sensation of drowning in a hostile world. Even given the theatricality, the film’s use of color, lighting and composition creates frame after frame worthy of a museum wall. It’s that gorgeous. Still, while the craft goes a long way, it’s the emotions that resonate long after the curtain falls. Anna’s passion, fierceness and tragedy remain intact, affirming the novel’s timelessness. Here is what Doctor Zhivago strove for, at long last accomplished.
Opens November 16