First, the screenplay was written by Tom Stoppard. Great playwright, and I recently read The Coast of Utopia which gives some serious thought to Russian literature. And now, here he is adapting one of the great Russian works to film. And what a job he does of it.
Second, Joe Wright's vision of Anna Karenina was centered on a theater. Instead of literally taking us all over Russia, the many party scenes occur on a stage or in a cleared out orchestra seating area, decorated to seem like a party. Many of the more dramatic moments happen with Levin, a young Russian landowner (and a bearded redhead--will wonders never cease?) who is absolutely in love with the blonde and angelic Kitty. There's a hilarious moment when he walks through some moving walls and comes out into the orchestra, when a curtain rises, revealing an enormous array of flats of clouds and chairs on which Kitty sits, perched like a cherubim. When he has to leave the party, he heads up into the wings and overhead to the catwalks, where people are arranged as if he is in a poorer part of town. His brother is hidden off in some back corner, coughing with disease. One might wonder if he isn't the light designer.
With this perspective, glances are shared from above to below, opera glasses are used to spy each other in the audience, and a huge horse race takes place on stage, with a horse falling out into the screaming audience. With these claustrophobic scenes (bringing to mind the horrible evils of private lives made public) comes a contrast when the curtains split like huge wooden doors and open on the wide tundra, and suddenly we are in the real world. I wish I'd had time to look at all the moments when falsehood opened on reality. Rewatching will certainly allow for that, and the film is certainly worth many revisitations.
Every aspect is filled with detail. Music is a part of it. Listen for time signatures, listen for major and minor. The costumes are a part of it. Look at colors. Is white pure? I could keep going.
Readers of the book might be perplexed by the film's casting: the iron-willed Karenin is played by the handsome and charming Jude Law, the social and open-hearted Anna is played by a skeletal, often dark Keira Knightley. The handsome Vronsky is played moustachedly by the seemingly-unremarkable Aaron Taylor-Johnson. But these casting choices all work. Jude Law bites like cold metal, Anna charms, delights, and draws our eyes like a train wreck. Vronsky has puppy-dog charm, buff-guy sex appeal and a perfect mix of confidence and naivete.
Of course, for me, the real stars are Levin and Kitty, played by Donham Gleeson and Alicia Vikander, whose story almost escapes from being a part of Anna Karenina, except that their tale is somewhat opposite. These two are not driven by blinding passion, but by something else--a different kind of love, though the English language so far only uses the one word for both things. What they discover I'll leave to you, because it's wonderful.
Caveat: for those worried about the R-rating, (I went with three LDS women, two over the age of 50) don't be. When a man with black soot on his face appears on screen, shut your eyes. Then don't open them. Wait about one minute, you will hear some screams and some cranking as he is killed by a train that runs him over. The movie will then magically become PG-13.
All of the sexuality is extremely appropriate, though the subject matter of course requires some maturity. This is the great cautionary tale against adultery. It will take us to scary places, but it does so with utmost respect. I was shocked to find a film so strongly positioned where it stood morally. In the world that Anna Karenina reveals us to be in, every glance means something, every word spoken aloud is heard, and love is a dangerous and powerful thing.
During one dinner scene--preceded by the fabulous line "Divorce is one thing; dinner is another entirely"--Karenin (the spurned husband) scoffs at a story about a husband fighting a lover over his wife's honour. He asks if the wife's honour would have been preserved if the lover had won. Someone then asks Levin if he would die for love, and Levin's reply is "For love, yes, but not for another man's wife." His consequent speech on the purity of marriage and the meaning of sexuality is a beautiful expression of my own perspective. Even if he is a redhead, he's a man after my own heart.