Dir. Joe Wright
(2012, R, 130 minutes)

I’ve never read the book or seen another adaptation; Joe Wright‘s Anna Karenina is my first exposure to Leo Tolstoy‘s tragic romance, and as the film began I was concerned its highly stylized approach may not be an ideal introduction. It starts at a rapid clip, morphing from scene to scene in a large, ever-changing theater that the film uses as a figurative representation of 19th century Russia, and at first I wondered, maybe this isn’t the right way in.

But my hesitation soon gave way to excitement. This turns out to be by far my favorite film by Wright, who has disappointed me before with self-conscious technique — like his long one-take shots in Atonement and Hanna, which communicated nothing more than the fact that Joe Wright can do a one-take. With Anna Karenina, he is no less ambitious with his use of technique — elaborate tableaux, stylized sets and lighting, and yes, at least one one-take I noticed — but this time he marries his artistic flourishes to the story in such a way that they feel natural together. The style serves the film instead of itself.

Once again he collaborates with composer Dario Marianelli, whose rat-tat-tat typewriter motifs in his Atonement score were too on-the-nose. This score is equally grand and romantic, but Wright matches it with the rhythms of his camera and actors to create such a sense of musicality you could almost dance to the pictures.

Keira Knightley stars as Anna in one of her strongest performances. Wright often holds tight on her face, which vividly expresses extremes of lust, love, despair, and shame. Other performances are similarly well tuned to the director’s bold romantic style. A playful side comes through in Matthew Macfadyen‘s comic performance as Anna’s brother, Oblonsky. We feel sympathy for her cuckold husband, played by Jude Law with a balance of hurt and dignified reserve. We’re warmed by the young love of Domhnall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander as Levin and Kitty, who provide contrast to the weight of Anna’s conflict.

Consider the expressiveness of some of Wright’s scenes: the first dance between Anna and her eventual lover Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), where swirling lust mixes with the first hints of social scandal; then in a later scene she is publicly shunned at a theater and the film shows the almost surreal anxiety of her public judgment. The imagery and music magnify the heights of joy and the depths of loss as they might be felt by Anna, for whom nothing could be as great or as terrible as unbridled passion.