This review was originally published on Pol Culture.
The English director Joe Wright has often treated dramatizing his material as a secondary concern. He often seems more interested in using the script as a springboard for directorial showmanship. He has never before taken this to the extravagant lengths he does in Anna Karenina, and this time it leaves one applauding. Any effort to realize Leo Tolstoy’s enormous 1877 novel as a feature-length film cannot help but be a diminution. Wright treats this stumbling block as beside the point, and he ends up doing the book more justice than a more conservative approach ever could. This Anna Karenina is a series of grandly executed set pieces that illustrate the story far more than they retell it. The basic plot is still there: screenwriter Tom Stoppard follows the general outline of the book and distills it into concise scenes. Anna (Keira Knightley), the wife of a high-ranking Russian official (Jude Law) falls in love with a dashing young military officer (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). She cannot let go of him, and in turn lets go of her marriage and societal position instead. As a piece of storytelling, the film feels like a summary of Tolstoy's novel. Wright, though, realizes every moment in the most flamboyant and theatrical terms. He seems to relish making the artifice as conspicuous as he can. The sets call attention to themselves as sets--the film deliberately looks as if much of it is being presented on a theater stage--and the action in the scenes is as boldly choreographed as a ballet. The spectacular staging and camera movement are complemented by the gorgeous work of cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, production designer Sarah Greenwood, composer Dario Marianelli, and costumer Jacqueline Durran--the film is a feast for the senses from beginning to end. Keira Knightley is a vivid, compelling Anna, and a few of the scenes are quite well-realized in dramatic terms. A particular standout is the dance when Anna and the officer fall in love, much to the chagrin of Kitty (Alicia Vikander), and unmarried hopeful also at the ball. The film isn’t for every taste, but if one can enjoy unbridled cinematic bravura for its own sake, it’s a treat.