Joe Wright's 2005 directorial debut Pride & Prejudice was more than just a stunning introduction to two formidable new talents (that would be both Wright and his star, Keira Knightley). It was a kind of call to arms for period pieces, a vivid reminder that, beneath even the most familiar and stuffiest of stories, there are the raw human emotions that made these stories universal. Both that film and Atonement established Wright as not just a talented imaginer of the past, but a ferociously confident filmmaker unafraid to transform it.
That confidence took a major leap forward with last year's Hanna, a violent fairy tale set in a kind of timeless modernity that looked nothing like Wright's previous work, but bore the same rigorous excellence combined with occasional breathtaking fragility. Hanna, a sharp left-turn in a career that skidded with The Soloist, seems to have unlocked something in Wright, as his Anna Karenina-- an adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's doorstop classic Russian novel-- is likely his best film yet. Rich with emotions and historical texture and exquisite design, Anna Karenina is another lush Wright period film, but shot through with jolts of imagination and filmmaking wizardry that leave you gasping. This is the 12th film adaptation of Tolstoy's novel, but I promise you've never seen it like this.
The film's biggest innovation is to set the entire story within a decaying old theater, a very literal translation of the prying eyes and strict rules of late 19th century Russian high society, where the upper class was so pretentious they spoke French amongst themselves. Wright uses the theater to stage all kinds of improbable scenes-- a horse race, an intimate bedroom encounter-- and occasionally lets us witness the stunning set changes, a choreography of actors and camera that rivals all the celebrated long takes in Wright's previous films. Characters sit among the footlights when they want to be alone, chatter up in the opera boxes to gossip-- but they are always trapped in this dilapidated theater, with no awareness that the world might change around them.
The one exception to this is Levin (Domnhall Gleeson), a farmer who only begrudgingly visits high society but who falls hard for a young girl (Alicia Vikander) who initially rejects him. Early on Levin pushes open the back door of the stage to walk into a snowy field, a simple but stunning photography trick that sets up a fascinating contrast between "real" and artificial spaces (in a film where, of course, everything is fictional). As Anna (Knightley) begins her torturous affair with the young, caddish Vronsky (Aaron Taylor Johnson) they frolic among real hedges and in fields of flowers, but they inexorably return to the theater, where gossips make their lives impossible. And even when Anna visits the frigid bedroom she shares with her stern husband (a marvelous Jude Law), the bedchamber can open up to the wings of the stage without warning. Love-- for a wife or husband, for a child, for an illicit affair-- is real in this story; it's the world itself that can constantly shift and redefine everything.
Tom Stoppard's fluid, very streamlined adaptation makes Anna Karenina a series of love stories, with the politics left to the fringes for curious viewers. The focus on Levin and Kitty's slow courtship contrasts beautifully with Anna and Vronsky's fevered affair, and though the martial fracture between Oblonsky and Dolly is one of the film's quieter notes, they're played so beautifully by Matthew MacFadyen and Kelly MacDonald that they feel essential as well. Wright is famous for working with the same technical team on every film, and all the elements of production here-- from Dario Marianelli's propulsive score to Jacqueline Durran's bravura costumes to Seamus McGarvey's sharp cinematography-- synch up so perfectly that the movie sweeps you along like the train on one of Anna's immense dresses. Anna Karenina is a massive, boldly imagined work, the rare novel adaptation that's purely, thrillingly cinematic.