"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." --Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
So begins Leo Tolstoy's master work, the novel William Faulkner pronounced "the best ever written," Anna Karenina. Tolstoy portrays a Russia on the verge of cataclysmic change, paralyzed by fear of its future and miserable in the chains of its past. The vast sweep of the novel encompasses Russian society at all levels, from the complex and treacherous workings of the aristocracy to the pastoral drudgery of the peasants.
With that in mind, you have to admire Wright's ambition. Anna Karenina. That's aiming high.
The path that leads from novel to screenplay is always narrow and treacherous. Translating essential intent from the infinitely rich and varied medium of the novel into the relative confines of screen (or stage) seems almost an impossible task. Even the great masters fail. But Wright seems determined to conquer. He already tackled Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice to critical acclaim and now Anna Karenina.
His effort is a smashing success.
First off, it is visually captivating. The richness of detail in the sets and costumes mesmerizes. Wright deftly uses light and shadow to set mood. The choreography, and there is a lot of complex choreography, particularly in the court scenes, is fascinating. (Is that really how aristocrats comported themselves? Fascinating, I tell you!) Screen-writer Tom Stoppard's dialog is sharp and packed with meaning.
Secondly, there is the acting. Keira Knightley positively bewitches as Anna. This is her third collaboration with Wright and that, to me, speaks to her work ethic. Because, judging from the high-level of the performances, Wright places big demands on his cast. (I've already mentioned the choreography.) Jude Law mystifies as the cuckold, Alexi Karenin; and Aaron Taylor-Johnson evokes contemptible admiration as Vronksy, the dashing cougar-hunter. It feels wrong not to mention others, but I'll point you to the IMDb database. The film presents a multitude of characters. (This is Tolstoy, after all.)
But the prime reason the film succeeds is its structure. Wright presents the story as a five-act play as if to draw a clear distinction from the novel. This allows him to use the advantages inherent in theater. Imagery and symbolism give significance to every flash of emotion, every frozen backdrop.
The film runs long (140 minutes), and you'd better be on your toes, because it doesn't let up.
Any great work of art --play, novel, portrait or sculpture --is a multifaceted mirror turned in upon itself. Joe Wright has one such with this brilliant interpretation.