Keira and 'Karenina' were made for each other
The new “Anna Karenina” is as regal, romantic and tragic as ever. The Tolstoy tale of a bored wife and doting mother martyred by her scandalous love for a rakish cavalry officer in Imperial Russia is a perfect period vehicle for Keira Knightley, who always brings a chest-heaving sexuality to such pieces - even the understated romances of Janes Austen.
But her reunion with her “Pride & Prejudice” director Joe Wright has been stage-managed by the great playwright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard. And he's given Tolstoy something no earlier screen version could claim - playfulness.
Stoppard, of “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead,” and Wright imagine the whole of Tolstoy's rich canvas of 1870s Russia as a stage - the many melodramatic characters in his upper-crust soap opera mere players, actors stepping into the spotlight, leaning over the footlights, or ducking backstage where the ugly “real” world of just-freed peasants and poverty live among the catwalks and ropes used to raise and lower scenery.
A stellar cast waltzes through stunning sets, mixed with painted backdrops and model locomotives, some covered with snow from the pre-Soviet winters. It's an obvious artifice that renders the over-the-top emotions and overly baroque decadence of Russia's ruling classes, “polite society,” just a tad risible. And it's a welcome touch.
Anna Karenina (Knightley) is lost the moment she locks eyes with the preening pretty boy Count Vronsky (played here by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, exchanging his “Kick Ass” costume for fancy military dress).
“Give me back my peace,” she pants as he curls his mustache and simmers over her.
“There can be no peace between us.”
It's wrong. It's sinful. And as Anna's statesman-husband (Jude Law, spot on) lectures, “Sin has a price. You may be sure of that.”
Anna has a sort of Emma Bovary boredom about her knuckle-cracking spouse, from his imperious ways of ordering her to bed to the fancy silver case he keeps his condoms in.
Vronsky forgets he is supposed to be smitten by Kitty - Princess Ekaterina (Alicia Vikander), younger sister to Anna's sister-in-law. As reckless as he is rakish, he is catnip to Anna. Countess Lydia (Emily Watson) may lecture her that her husband is a “saint” and that “We must cherish him, for Russia's sake,” but Anna's not buying it.
And even though Anna just talked her sister-in-law (Kelly Macdonald, earthy and distraught) into forgiving and taking back Anna's wayward brother (the hilarious Matthew Macfadyen, Knightley's “Pride & Prejudice” co-star), she tumbles into an affair that will be her ruin. Will she herself be forgiven, taken back and “saved?”
Every “Karenina” is a product of its times, and Wright and Stoppard take pains to “see” the people the nobility do not - the rail worker killed in an early scene, assorted peasant fieldworkers, servants and the like. In trimming the bulky book, Stoppard makes sure to include the alcoholic pre-Revolution revolutionary (David Wilmot), brother to the sensitive landowner Konstantin Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), who is the noble suitor Kitty rejects for Vronsky.
Knightley and Taylor-Johnson, dolled up so that he looks like a younger Jonathan Rhys-Myers here, have a certain chemistry. But the icy parameters of a stale marriage were never more vividly captured than in the Law's scenes with Knightley. Count Karenin has a sort of compassionate severity that Law, who would have made quite the Vronsky himself, ably translates.
It's an over-familiar story, thanks to the many big- and small-screen versions of it over the years. There are too many characters to juggle, not enough scenes suggesting Anna's obsessive devotion to her young son. But this “Karenina,” from its dancers-frozen-in-place waltzes to the public whispers that play like shouted indiscretions, reminds us that all the great period romances weren't written by Ms. Austen, or even written in English.
Roger Moore is a movie critic for McClatchy-Tribune News Service.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- SWAT team responds to incident in Edgeworth
- Gas industry remedies ‘brain drain’ in Western Pennsylvania
- Inside the glass: Sutter takes puck to face
- Pitt blows 10-point lead as Iowa rallies for win
- Every room should participate in selling home, experts say
- Lending challenges, rehab costs thwart efforts to revitalize blighted neighborhoods in Western Pennsylvania
- Ben & Jerry’s inspires brownie flavors
- Penguins notebook: Crosby sits, could be out ‘couple days’
- Jack Reacher visits Europe in Lee Child’s latest, ‘Personal’
- Technical difficulties: Living with the angst of a digital diet
- S. Africa’s Beukes revisits America in ‘Broken Monsters’