Bringing an old-time classic to the foreground again is a daring attempt that can easily turn into complete failure. Unless you do it the “wright” way. Especially when the classic is Anna Karenina, a heroine that has successfully crossed centuries and needs no introduction for what she does to herself. Yet this is precisely what director Joe Wright decides to do: he takes her off the shelves, breathes new life into her and puts her on a theatre stage in a different movie that stands no comparison.
After Romeo and Juliet’s forbidden love that turns into a party-of-two suicide due to various unfortunate misunderstandings, Anna Karenina ranks probably as the second most applauded suicide in literature. Wright has a very intelligent take on the Russian classic and exceeds all expectations. Nothing changes to the good old Tolstoy story line, but the dynamics, the vision, the portrayal, the interpretation, the engagement are totally different.
All the original ingredients are there: we’ve got passionate vs. reasonable love, social circumstances working against the lovers and we have Anna, inevitably under the train as the absolute tragic ending. But Wright employs a “life as a theatre” technique and suddenly we forget that we are at the cinema. He plays a lot with imagination, his and ours, realizes beautiful visual imagery, zooms on detailed gestures and dramatics that are typical of theatre actors, and somehow, while making us slightly confused, manages to keep the emotion alight.
Rather than giving away too much, Wright plays on suggestion. He invites us to cogitate while we roller-coast through an unexpected fake decor drawn up to mock the Russian aristocracy. Keira Knightley, sparkling in her ever-changing costumes and moods, walks as agonising Anna in the middle of a crowd which stands still: her world stops and everything else falls silent with it. So do we, as we witness it. Blending the lightness of musical comedies with an atmosphere that is somehow reminiscent of Almodovar, and occasionally bordering parody, Wright manages to leave even the connoisseurs with a shade of doubt: is she really going to do it?
It would be unfair to compare this movie with its forerunner: there would have been no purpose in Wright wanting to reproduce exactly the same pattern that has been screened before. Was Mercutio ever black in Shakespeare’s vision? But by being innovative, Wright provokes polemics and takes the chance of dividing his public in two: hate it or love it. His merit is that he re-constructs a lost world in an incomparable style without ever losing focus on the actual tragedy: love and passion, equally uplifting and devastating, the most explosive cocktail of feelings that has ever driven the human kind. A classic brilliantly re-visited and an experimental director who scores high.