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The Tom Stoppard-scripted "Anna Karenina" opens with a virtuosic display of orchestrated one-take linear camera movement to transport the viewer from a backstage theatrical reality to an adaptable cinematic experience.
The daring bit of imaginative shape shifting goes on for an inordinately long period, thus forcing the audience to accept an element of theatrical artifice as part of the film’s due diligence to its source. Later in the first act, the result of a train accident snaps the story into reality with a gruesome example of mortality. We are firmly in the life of the movie now.
A tragic death establishes the romantic story’s underlying tragic tone. The title character’s participation as the unwitting cause of the accident sends a chill that corresponds to the freezing landscape of the story’s Russian setting.
Playing with form has always been one of Tom Stoppard’s trump cards as a playwright and screenwriter. His work on “Shakespeare In Love” was a revelation. Here, Stoppard knows where to let Leo Tolstoy’s 1873 novel fly, and also where to plant its earthbound aspects. The story is after all about a passionate adulterous affair that shatters the female half of the couple — Anna Karenina (beguilingly played by Keira Knightley). It is also about the kind of social and political hypocrisy that makes such errors in judgment grounds for punishment worse than prison.
Keira Knightley is a unique actress in that her natural openhearted disposition enables her to freely identify with a wide variety of characters via complete artistic freedom. Her generosity as an actress has a way of seeping into every crevice of any story. As Anna Karenina, Knightley is regal but never condescending. It doesn’t hurt that Knightley works again with simpatico director Joe Wright, with whom she made “Atonement” (2007). Some combinations of director and actor work like a charm. Wright’s confident direction never flags. His dramatically elevated characters keep their multiple identities of human, theatrical, and archetypal forms with a refreshing transparency.
Jude Law plays Anna’s cuckolded husband Karenin with a moral outrage that skews more British than Russian. The filmmakers make no pretense about this being a British translation of a Russian play. Reference the film’s elongated opening sequence. Prince Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) — a cavalry officer — is the object of Anna’s uncontrollable affection. Taylor-Johnson is ideally cast as a character who is at once sincere and yet too taken with his own youthful beauty to be loyal. The affair is so lopsided that even without previous access to the story, audiences will likely read the writing on the wall.
“Anna Karenina” is a visually lush film. As expected, the bejeweled costumes and oversized production designs are sophisticated beyond belief. Oscar nominations are certain. It is also an efficient telling of a great story. Stoppard’s deftness with handling a multitude of characters without allowing for any audience confusion is something of a wonder. Every character is thoroughly knowable. “Anna Karenina” shows all.
Rated R. 130 mins.