There is something magical about the way in which Joe Wright creates his films. There is a definitive eye for craft and a grand amount of attention paid to detail. It has resulted in some of the more beautiful shots of the last decade whether they be the glorious steadicam shot on the beach of Dunkirk in Atonement or some of his more subtle work in overlooked films such as Hanna or even The Soloist. There are moments in each of these films where you could simply sit back and marvel at the craft and skill being put into it rather than care about the story that is unfolding. In his latest effort, a retelling of Leo Tolstoy's meditation on love known as Anna Karenina Wright again enlists his muse for period pieces Kiera Knightley and takes us on a spectacle that may be his most beautiful film to date, but suffers from not having the emotional core that his other period pieces have contained. I am a huge fan of Atonement and have followed Wright's career since that film captured my heart. I was anxiously awaiting what the director would do having the opportunity to again venture into his comfort zone and while the results may not have been as spectacularly moving as I'd hoped there is no doubt this is a fine film. The acting is top notch and features an array of characters that all compliment the central theme in a way that writing seems to have lacked for some time. Adapting Tolstoy is no small task and Wright along with screenwriter Tom Stoppard (Shakespeare in Love) have not only brought to life a story that likely didn't need to be told again but have condensed it so as to elicit a central idea, a study of an emotion, and the way in which it controls our lives with an unnerving direction.

Jude Law and Kiera Knightley in Anna Karenina.

Going into the film I was unfamiliar with the story having never stumbled across this Tolstoy novel, but the fact it was the writing of Tolstoy combined with the vision of Wright was immediately intriguing. The tale of Anna Karenina is one of confusion, of societal rules and the image one must uphold to keep their name intact and respected. It is a story that doesn't exactly relate to the troubles of relationships or love today, but one could easily draw comparisons to a present situation if need be. Anna (Knightley) is a socialite married to an aristocrat in 19th century Russia. The conflict arises when Anna visits her brother Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyn) in Moscow to attempt saving his marriage after his own womanizing schemes become known to his wife Dolly (Kelly Macdonald). An interesting, if not so subtle piece of foreshadowing that implies the differences in tolerance for the carnal needs of a man and the desires of women. When her brother picks her up from the train station Anna first encounters Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor Johnson) and there is an immediate attraction between the two. Vronsky pursues and Anna denies until she can no more. It is sometimes strange, the obsession level with which Vronsky goes after the title character, but it is always acknowledged. Vronsky is a bachelor and anxious to move through the ranks and pursue the hottest commodity on his arm. The film focuses on the reasons for the relationship very little, there is no basis as to why these two are so in love with one another other than the fact they are attracted to each other. There is nothing deeper than this, but still, it is more than Anna has with her current husband Karenin (Jude Law). The troubles encountered involving her husband and the man she's now a mistress to are balanced with the trial of love between idealist Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) and Dolly's sister Kitty (Alicia Vikander) who was also tempted by Vronsky. In this relationship is where we find the true heart of the story.

It is not a tough film to follow though it is easy to let the speech and fancy set decoration fool you; in its most basic form it is a story of love and betrayal. The way in which it is presented is what director Wright specializes in and thus is why the story can feel so accessible to those unfamiliar with classic literature. In his uncompromising vision Wright imagines the story unfolding as if it were on a stage due to the idea that people of the 19th century Russian aristocracy could be described as living life upon a stage. The director and his team approached the project with that theme in mind and ran with it, well, at least for a little while. This visually fantastic concept starts out strong with the camera following the actors as if it were a stage play, as the sets change behind them. The music, the choreography, and all other elements that have to be timed perfectly with the footing of the actors and the tracking of the camera is stunning. It literally feels as if it is sweeping you up in the way they are telling this story. It is so perfectly put together. As if too big an undertaking though, and only realizing it halfway through production the elaborate quality to some of the early shots begin to become less and less prominent as the film goes on. It could be chalked up to an artistic choice that as Anna becomes more anxious, more paranoid about losing what she has been living off for so long as well as her place in society that she feels less surrounded by spectacle and more by typical, but it does not. Instead, it feels more as if the energy was there in the beginning but became too difficult to manage everything that goes into such precise shots that it simply became easier to shoot in a more traditional way, throwing in a reference to the stage only every once in a while. More than this though it is the general dislike for the central character that turned me away more than anything. I'm sure Knightley, who is more than capable of handling a role such as this, was trying to play the most honest representation of the character but there must be a better way to create a connection with the audience where we empathize with Anna rather than coming to not care about her at all.

Kitty (Alicia Vikander) is pursued by Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) in the real love story of Anna Karenina.
What we do care about, as mentioned before, is the relationship and the struggle for its success between Levin and Anna's sister-in-law Kitty. The wonderful set up for all these criss-crossing relationships pits Kitty against the older, intimidating Anna yet out of this grows a woman wise to the ways in which the world works and in many ways shows us how succumbing to what society wants, what is maybe the easiest choice can drive us to contentment rather than taking a risk on the tough choice which can go either way. Levin, as played by Domhnall Gleeson (son of Brendan), gives us wonderful hope in the spirit of love and what it can mean to a person in its purest form. He is the antithesis of everything Anna represents yet he is everything she wants to be. It is by society standards he was afforded such opportunities to live out his ideals and she was not. It is a tragedy and the idea of if things are "meant to be" or "happen for a reason" are discussed at several points between Levin and one of his farmhands. Maybe I prefer the story of Levin and Kitty over Anna and Vronsky for the simple fact it has a happier ending, but in all regards it's more genuine than anything we can gather from the affair between the stars of the show. Gleeson easily gives the best performance of the show and Knightley does a fine job of transforming Anna from a mother to an obsessed lover to a woman desperate to just be in control of her life. She is a tragic figure and that comes through fully even if I couldn't fully comprehend some of her actions. You feel bad for Anna because you know none of this is truly her fault. Yet, as we find it hard to connect with the character we receive more the theme in which the story is trying to get across. Is it completely about morality? I doubt it, but it does allow the thoughts of trying to achieve happiness for your own sake from another persons place of pain as an impossibility in life that we, even today, will likely come face to face with. It is a strong sentiment and Stoppard allows that to slowly emerge from the actions taking place on screen. It may not hit you in the heart as much as one might expect but it certainly had me thinking and looking on in wonder at its beauty. I'll take it.

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