Joe Wright’s take on Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina isn’t quite a by-the-numbers piece of literature on film, but it is an unexpectedly bold vision that can’t help but take one by surprise when stepping into it.  Like opening up any one of Tolstoy’s novels, I felt immersed in the classic tale of love, class, and tragedy. It would be expected to deliver a traditional take on Anna Karenina, one filmed in a PBS/Masterpiece Theater style, but thankfully what we have is Wright’s risky, high-concept vision that probably would have even blown Tolstoy away.

No stranger to seamlessly adapting epic love stories to the big screen (Pride and PrejudiceAtonement) this is Wright’s third collaboration with Keira Knightley. As the dream team when it comes to doing the classics, this film doesn’t feel as safe as it should with telling its story as if it were performing a play or opera. All the sets in the film are built on a stage, as if we the viewers are sitting in the audience watching a performance. The beautiful first scenes set the theatrical tone of the film that’s maintained seamlessly throughout. Even when the scenes go outdoors it still holds on to its theatricality.  Both Wright and Knightley prove themselves here as truly understanding the material, and they know how to do it justice on screen.

Here we have the timeless story that you probably at least skimmed in a college literature class. Set in 1874 imperial Russia, the beautiful Anna Karenina (Knightley) appears to have it all. She’s the wife of Karenin (Jude Law), a high-ranking government official with whom she has a son. Her coveted position in imperial society can hardly be any higher. Anna journeys to Moscow after being called on from her brother Oblonsky (a terrific Matthew MacFayden) to come and help save his marriage to Dolly (the always reliable Kelly Macdonald). While on the train to Moscow she meets Countless Vronsky (Olivia Williams), who introduces Anna to her son, the handsome handlebar-mustached cavalry officer Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). The intense connection between Anna and the handsome young count spark a torrid affair that puts in jeopardy all that Anna has come to take for granted.

Going back to the tone and visual style of the film being performed on a stage: It’s a tricky thing to pull off, but Wright and his creative team seem to do it without being too gimmicky, or going into Baz Luhrmann territory.  One of my favorite set pieces of the film belongs to the horseracing scene in which Vronsky crashes his horse off the stage into the audience.  Wright seems to know where this film is going due to the fact he knows that what must come first is the story.  At its heart the film digs deep into the psyche of its characters, particularly with the choice Anna makes between Karenin and Vronsky.  In this take on the story it’s particularly stressed that Anna is almost an anti-hero of the story with the script by Tom Stoppard (Shakespeare in Love) and a fantastic cast supporting it.

Kiera Knightley’s performance will probably get her another Oscar nomination. Her Anna Karenina feels well-read, embodied in an old Hollywood kind of way.  These are the types of films that Knightley excels in, and this might be her strongest performance to date.  Other roles to watch out for is Jude Law’s equally impressive Karenin, which might be an under-the-radar pick for Best Supporting Actor.  His take on this character is at times quite sympathetic, and steals every one of the scenes.

It’s a film that will be defiantly polarizing to many. While many might walk away from it cold, or scratching their heads at the style, I found myself both entertained and moved.  Here’s one of the most beautiful films of the year that’s bound to have a devoted following in the years to come.

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