After teaming together to produce two box office hits ('Pride and Prejudice' and 'Atonement') director Joe Wright and actress Keira Knightley's third collaboration – a retelling of Tolstoy's romantic tragedy – is another dazzling cinematic success.
With such critically-acclaimed, smash hit films as Pride and Prejudice and Atonement already under their collective cinematic belt, director Joe Wright and Academy Award-nominated actress Keira Knightley have more than aptly demonstrated to movie-going audiences that their big screen collaborations customarily result in extraordinarily poignant, visually-compelling and emotionally-charged motion pictures. While the gifted filmmaker and his ultra-talented leading lady seem to posses something of a Midas touch when it comes to generating modern-day film classics, tackling an expansive, dense and ageless masterwork such as Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy's epic romantic tragedy, Anna Karenina, and adapting the iconic literary piece (published in 1877) into a mainstream theatrical release for current day movie-going audiences is to say, at the very least, a wildly ambitious and creatively risky undertaking.
There have already been countless attempts to bring Tolstoy's story of Anna Karenina, a married, well-respected member of Czarist Russia's elite, hypocritical, image-obsessed aristocracy – who commits the unforgivable sin of not hiding her adulterous behavior and is treated like
Vivien Leigh as Anna Karenina
a pariah by her St. Petersburg and Moscow contemporaries for her shameless indiscretions – to the silver screen...with varying degrees of success. The two most respected and well-loved celluloid interpretations of Anna Karenina include the 1935 Hollywood-produced adaptation starring Greta Garbo and the British-made 1948 classic featuring Vivien Leigh in the lead role of the love-intoxicated heroine. Subsequently, since the '50s, there have been quite a number of cinematic misfires and more than a few undeniable creative flops based on the novel (including the late-'90s snoozer starring Sophie Marceau and Sean Bean).
So, why in the world would a talented director like Wright and a bankable actress like Ms. Knightley risk their box office winning streak on such a potentially perilous project? Well, after only a few minutes of viewing Wright's adaptation of Anna Karenina (from a script by the remarkable playwright/screenwriter Tom Stoppard) it's easy to figure out why Wright chose to re-imagine Tolstoy's tale of following one's heart, throwing caution to the wind and paying the ultimate price for giving into one's passions and uncontrollable desires.
Crafted by a gifted filmmaker who possesses a penchant for creating epic love stories for the hopeless romantic in us all, Wright's Anna Karenina is a phenomenal and astonishing directorial accomplishment. Simply put, it’s first-rate filmmaking. Wright is a genuine cinematic visionary who has reconfigured an artistically challenging and emotionally complex love story from a 135-year-old novel into a wonderfully fresh, visually-arresting and downright exhilarating motion picture experience.
Wright's concept of presenting Anna Karenina as sort of a play within a motion picture is a riveting, bold and truly inspired artistic gamble that pays off, tenfold. It's a clever little filmmaking device that transports the viewer smack dab into the middle of the emotional maelstrom that dominates the epic, harrowing tragedy. Wright's ingenious decision to utilize sequences acted out on a theater stage alongside scenes from authentic locations shots is truly intoxicating.
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Keira Knightley in a scene from 'Anna Karenina'
Attempting to elucidate the plot of Anna Karenina to readers in a couple of sentences would be akin to trying to explain Tolstoy's War and Peace in a few short words. (Okay, it can be done: War and Peace is about....well, war and peace). And, while one could flippantly proclaim Anna Karenina is simply Tolstoy's take on a catastrophic love story set in pre-Communist Russia, Wright's adaptation is far more satisfying and spellbinding than your average painted-by-numbers romantic period costume drama. Wright has fashioned Anna Karenina into a gripping, uncompromising human character study documenting the torturous emotional and physical effects forbidden love can exact upon its star-crossed participants. In a stroke of creative genius, Wright has skillfully ripped Tolstoy's characters and their stories right off the page of the legendary literary work and has transformed their cautionary tale into a lush, poignant, sweeping and, ultimately, heartbreaking big screen romance that will leave you breathless.
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Keira Knightley in 'Anna Karenina'
What makes Anna Karenina even more compelling is the undisputable fact that it's a film fueled by some of the most fearless and passionate performances ever committed to celluloid. Quite simply, Keira Knightley is phenomenal as Anna Karenina. Knightley delivers an astonishingly haunting and intensely electrifying performance teaming with raw emotion, longing, fury and desire. Her portrayal of Anna Karenina is one of the most sensational, Oscar-worthy performances of her spectacular career – far surpassing her near-flawless work in Pride and Prejudice and Atonement. (In fact, those who don’t fall completely head over heels for Knightley's embodiment of Anna Karenina should have their pulses checked, because they just might not be in possession of a fully-functional heart.)
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Aaron Taylor-Johnson portrays Vronsky in director Joe Wright's cinematic retelling of Leo Tolstoy's 'Anna Karenina'
An almost unrecognizable Jude Law is magnificent as Karenin, Anna’s overly-patient husband (and high-ranking government official) who literally begs his vibrant yet defiant wife to end her extramarital affair with a dashing cavalry officer. A relative newcomer to North American audiences, the British-born, 22-year-old Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Nowhere Boy, Kick Ass) shines fiercely in Anna Karenina by turning in an incisive, seductive and penetrating portrayal as Anna’s lover, Vronsky. The remaining lead cast members of Anna Karenina are equally extraordinary; Matthew Macfadyen, Kelly Macdonald, Olivia Williams, Domhnall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander are marvelous in their supporting roles and each of these actors give splendid and unforgettable performances.
I could spend hours discussing and dissecting the reasons why Anna Karenina is one of the most important, must-see films of the year, but no amount of hyperbole and praise can truly do justice to the majesty and splendor of this film. Wright and Knightley's collaborative creative gamble has paid off for a third, glorious time. Destined to become a bonafide Academy Award contender, Anna Karenina is a dazzling filmmaking triumph that is unquestionably worth its weight in vast amounts of Oscar gold. Do your heart, soul and psyche a favor and go see Anna Karenina – now.
A behind-the-scenes featurette on the making of Anna Karenina