By Eleanor Ringel Cater
Those of you who prefer their Tolstoy straight up are going to be mightily disappointed by Joe Wright’s dazzling —sometimes-dizzying — adaptation of the famed 1877 novel, “Anna Karenina.”
With his usual leading lady Keira Knightley (“Atonement,” “Pride and Prejudice”) in the title role, Wright has created a sort of phantasmagorical exegesis of the book, which, despite its heftiness, can just about be reduced, plot-wise, to a country song. “Say, Your Cheatin’ Heart.”
Anna is a well-to-do respectable woman with a well-to-do respectable husband, Karenin (played by a cold-eyed Jude Law who brings enormous dexterity to a stiff character). They have a place in the country, a place in Moscow society, even a beloved young son — on whom, it’s clear, what’s left of her passion for life has been lavished).
Enter one Count Vronsky (a wretchedly miscast Aaron Taylor-Johnson), as pretty boy so stereotypical we can hardly imagine him without flared nostrils, jewel-like eyes and a white army uniform.
Anna falls — hard — and the rest is her-story. Very much her-story in that Wright consciously focuses our attention on lines from the novel like “Laws are made by husbands and men.”
And sure enough, her husband refuses to take her back after her, um, indiscretion with Vronsky. But it’s not the law he cites saying, “I’d call on her if she only broke the law, but she broke the rules.”
And rules are what make the Russian aristocracy tick in the late 1800’s. We glimpse their privileged indolence in one image after another: a cigar is held out, waiting for someone to bring an ashtray, a finger awaits a ring.
That ingenius genius Tom Stoppard is responsible for the screenplay, which shapes so much of this risky and ambitious picture. But director Wright is the miracle-worker here. He begins with a stage so gilded it almost seems surreal. From there, he switches back and forth between theatricality and, for lack of another word, actuality.
A boy’s toy train transformed into a huffing, puffing full-sized locomotive. A letter delivered to someone on-stage is torn to bits and the pieces become very real snowflakes in a very real setting. A character in on stage one second, sitting in the audience the net. At one point, a line of mounted officers (and their steeds) stares out from downstage, looking out on an ice-skating rink where the audience would normally be.
At any moment, we may move from a glittering ball to a dingy backstage, full of ropes and pulleys and sweaty stagehands on a catwalk. It’s Brechtian alienation applied in a manner I’ve never before experienced.
The result is nothing short of intoxicating. Astonishing. Wright and Stoppard and their cast dangle us between their fingers, daring us to accept first this head-spinning transition, then that one.
There’s even an image that, I could swear, is based on the celebrated Rolling Stone cover of John and Yoko curled together in bed.
Or maybe not. That’s one of the essential things “Anna Karenina” does for us. It tickles (and strong-arms) our imagination, our willingness to go where it chooses to take us.
I was worried that the only movies I’d fall in love with this year were “Bernie” and “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” I think I am even more smitten with “Anna Karenina.”