While Leo Tolstoy’s tale of an aristocratic Russian family is a famously expansive affair — it was published in several instalments between 1873 and 1877 and my edition clocks in at an eyeball-straining 963 pages — it is surprisingly intimate.

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REVIEW: Anna Karenina
Kiera Knightley in Anna Karenina.

FILM
Anna Karenina (M) 4 stars
Keira Knightley, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Jude Law
DIRECTOR: JOE WRIGHT
REVIEW: MARK NAGLAZAS
You’ll like this if you liked The Portrait of a Lady, The Age of Innocence, The House of Mirth and Wright’s two period dramas with Knightly, Pride and Prejudice and Atonement.

While Leo Tolstoy’s tale of an aristocratic Russian family is a famously expansive affair — it was published in several instalments between 1873 and 1877 and my edition clocks in at an eyeball-straining 963 pages — it is surprisingly intimate.

While Tolstoy’s earlier War and Peace is as vast as its title suggests, Anna Karenina is about two interlocking romances and how they are played out against the backdrop of Russian high society, a world of grand homes, glittering balls and strict social protocols and rituals that would in a few decades be swept away by the Bolshevik uprising.

Hence you constantly feel the St Petersburg and Moscow ruling class pressing on the respective couples (on Anna Karenina and her foppish military-man lover Count Vronsky, on Kitty and her anguished farm-owner suitor Levin), who barely act or express a thought without consideration of how they’re being regarded by their pampered and perfumed peers.

Joe Wright’s decision to set his wildly imaginative modernist adaptation of Anna Karenina largely within the confines of an old-world theatre probably had more to do with finances than any artistic consideration (though he argues otherwise) but the result makes more sense than what peeved critics have allowed.

Not merely stunning to look at — the money saved on locales has been lavished on costumes, set decoration and Wright’s signature flowing camera movements and choreography — this boldly pared-back, highly theatrical treatment of Tolstoy’s classic reminds us that there is nothing private about Anna’s betrayal of her husband, with everything played out in the theatre that is pre-revolutionary Russian high society.

From the helter-skelter opening, in which Anna’s skirt-chasing brother Oblonsky has yet again disrupted his household after a fling with the maid, right through to the famously tragic denouement at the train station, Wright’s Anna Karenina is a perpetual stage play in which everyone is on show the whole time.

Even the famous horserace, in which Anna (Keira Knightley) inadvertently reveals her love for Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) to her husband (Jude Law) for the first time, takes place in the theatre, a stunningly photographed and edited sequence that reveals Wright to be one of contemporary cinema’s pre-eminent visualists.

Indeed, Wright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard (Shakespeare in Love) have amped up the comic and social satirical aspects of Tolstoy’s story that’s not a feature of the numerous earlier adaptations, not just to poke fun at the form of the period drama but to give Anna’s tragic arc an even greater tragic dimension.

While Wright’s deliberately artificial Fellini-esque spectacle (the Italian maestro’s name has not been invoked in reviews of Anna Karenina but he’s definitely an influence) is ravishing to the eye, he never loses sight of his characters, nor does he bury the actors in climactic high style.

Knightley, working with Wright for the third time after Pride & Prejudice and Atonement, is a highly mannered actress who divides audiences.

However, as Anna Karenina, a woman torn between her desire for the dashing young cavalry officer and her craving for social respectability and the son her husband threatens to wrench away from her, Knightley’s brittleness, her tightly clenched neurotic quality is perfect.

She is tragic heroine and pre-women’s lib victim, for sure, but swathed in Jacqueline Durran’s gorgeous gowns (the movie is Vogue fashion-spread worthy) Knightley has enough of the contemporary, Sex and the City narcissist to make her Anna very contemporary.

Taylor-Johnson (best known for playing John Lennon in Nowhere Boy) is younger than previous Vronskys and more of a pretty boy. But, again, while this preening, toy-boy quality might turn off older women, he speaks to our own age and is a terrific contrast to Law’s suitably puritanical, coldly careerist public official Karenin.

Where Wright’s version does surpass earlier Anna Kareninas (notably those featuring Greta Garbo and Vivien Leigh) is the attention paid to the relationship between Vronsky cast-off Kitty (a luminous Alicia Vikander) and the awkward but honest and true gentleman farmer Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), whose sweet but stuttering romance contrasts with the wrenching melodramatics of the central celebrity couple.

At times Anna Karenina goes beyond Fellini into the realm of Baz Luhrmann-ish high camp (a glimpse at The Great Gatsby to come, perhaps) and is the reason why it has been rejected by many reviewers and scored Oscar nominations only in the design and photography departments.

But all Anna Kareninas are doomed to fail because of the sprawling nature of the novel and its literary achievement. Still, it is a vivacious, provocative production that while it doesn’t take you deep into the house of Tolstoy it certainly leads you to the front door.

Anna Karenina is now screening.