Next to 'War and Peace,' 'Anna Karenina' stands as the best-known work by Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy. The tragic tale of infidelity, all-consuming passion, and constricted social mores has captivated readers for more than a century, and over the years the international film industry has been just as obsessed with 'Anna' as the title character is with the dashing Count Vronsky, mounting more than a half-dozen productions of the domestic saga since the silent era. I haven't seen them all, but I've experienced quite a few, including the Greta Garbo-John Gilbert vehicle, 'Love' (1927), which changes the characters names and foolishly foregoes the famous train station finale in favor of a misguided happy ending; 1935's 'Anna Karenina,' in which Garbo reprises her role and at last acts out the character's devastating end; the 1948 British version, starring a post-Scarlett O'Hara Vivien Leigh; and the classy 10-part 1977 TV miniseries that aired on PBS's 'Masterpiece Theater' and features the breathtaking Nicola Pagett in arguably the most complete cinematic telling of Tolstoy's opus. Add to that two Russian adaptations, a filmed ballet, and two other American productions - a TV movie from the 1980s with Jacqueline Bisset and Christopher Reeve, and a big screen epic from the 1990s that, judging from paltry box office receipts, nobody saw. With so many adaptations cluttering the canvas, why would anyone feel the need to remake 'Anna Karenina' yet again? And if so, how could this classic romance be told in a different and innovative way?
Director Joe Wright ('Pride and Prejudice,' 'Atonement,' 'Hanna') wrestled with these questions as he began prepping the latest screen treatment of 'Anna Karenina,' and at last came upon the clever and audacious idea of setting the drama largely within the confines of a theater and treating the piece as if it were a stage performance. The inventive notion suits the material well, considering its limited scope, and while at times the presentation feels awkward and more than a tad pretentious, it's all so beautifully and lyrically executed we forgive any hiccups in the suspension of disbelief. Above all, Wright respects the original source and wisely keeps this 'Anna' faithful to Tolstoy. (Screenwriter Tom Stoppard also deserves commendation for cramming as much of the novel as possible into the two-hour running time.) His unconventional technique, however, puts a fresh spin on an oft-told story, infusing it with an intriguing and beguiling contemporary flair that draws us in despite any reluctance.
The story of Anna Karenina, the seemingly happy wife of a rigid, emotionally reserved man in Imperial Russia who enters into a reckless affair with a handsome cavalry officer, is well known, especially with regard to its somber and wretched denouement. After a chance meeting and instant attraction, Anna (Keira Knightley) and Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) surrender to lust, subsisting on a steady diet of carnal encounters that eventually breed mistrust and paranoia, ultimately ruining Anna's marriage, severing her relationship with the young son she adores, and inciting a vicious backlash from a society that views infidelity with the same degree of disdain as murder. "Sin has a price," Vronsky tells Anna early on. "You may be sure of that." Yet the smitten Anna can never imagine paying the ultimate price for her immoral acts.
Tolstoy offsets this destructive relationship with one based largely on spiritual love between the mild-mannered farmer Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) and Anna's initially fickle sister-in-law, Kitty (Alicia Vikander). Theirs is a "normal" and "healthy" union, built on core family values and the principles of hard work and mutual support. Such pure attitudes, Tolstoy tells us, flourish in rural environments, far away from the corruptive and corrosive elements that infect major cities.
Though it would be easy to lose the finer points of Tolstoy's tale amid the lavish trappings of the artificial presentation, Wright makes sure he never dilutes or sugarcoats the novel's events and themes. On the contrary, this 'Anna Karenina' paints a more honest and brutal portrait of its heroine than more romanticized versions. Anna is less sympathetic here, more calculating and unbalanced, with a shrewdness that's not always attractive. Like a woman far ahead of her time, she knows what she wants and she's not afraid to take it, whatever the consequences. Her husband, on the other hand, who's usually played as a cruel, vindictive villain, refreshingly gains our compassion, as Jude Law allows us to see Karenin's pain, feel his deep sense of betrayal, and recognize that in spite of all Anna has done, he still harbors feelings for his unfaithful wife.
Knightley has carved a niche portraying historical heroines, and she inhabits Anna fully, embracing her ebullience, tenderness, and sensuality as well as the darker neuroses that drive the character to her doom. Stifled by society's rigid rules, Anna brazenly breaks free of the chains, and the manner in which Knightley expresses her liberation is often exhilarating, especially within the confines of the stylized setting. I never expect much from Knightley, yet she almost always winds up impressing me with her intuitive and strangely seductive performances, and here she's eerily reminiscent of Vivien Leigh.
Like its leading lady, 'Anna Karenina' is incredibly lovely to look at, and therein lies most of its allure. The impeccable production values, sumptuous costumes, and dazzling cinematography make this version a visual feast. Wright employs a fluid camera that navigates the theatrical setting well, lending it the flavor of a musical. He also opens up the presentation when it moves to the countryside, adopting a more cinematic style that allows the story to breathe.
If you're an 'Anna Karenina' aficionado or a fan of gorgeous period films, you'll find much to like here. Insightful performances and artistic direction eclipse the familiarity of the material, which is about all you can ask of a film of this sort. Since we already know how the story plays out, presentation becomes critical, and though some may criticize Wright for his avant-garde take (I was initially leery of it myself), the director somehow makes it work, and in the process, still manages to honor this classic novel. Is this my favorite version of 'Anna Karenina'? Probably not. I'm too much of a traditionalist to fully accept its conceit. But it's a valiant, artistic effort that's imaginative, elegant, and moving.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
The 2012 version of 'Anna Karenina' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case inside a glossy sleeve with raised lettering. A 50GB dual-layer BD disc and standard-def DVD reside inside, along with a leaflet explaining how to access the Ultraviolet Digital Copy. Video codec is 1080p/AVC
Lavish costume dramas demand a quality transfer, and thankfully this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 rendering sports exceptional clarity and contrast, as well as a marvelous sense of depth. Just a hint of grain enhances the crystalline image, which is completely free of scratches and debris, maintaining the feel of celluloid without sacrificing the immediacy of theater. The textures and fabrics of wardrobe items, such as furs and veils, come through cleanly, and colors on the gowns are vibrant and saturated without ever appearing pushed. Whites are strangely predominant, but they're always well modulated, distinct, and resist blooming, while black levels remain deep and inky, and fleshtones are stable and true.
Lovely close-ups highlight facial details, and background elements are always easy to discern. Shadow delineation is quite good as well, with no instances of crush afflicting nocturnal scenes. Banding, pixelation, edge enhancement, and noise are absent, too, and no digital doctoring lends any artifice to the picture. Part of the allure of this 'Anna Karenina' is its visual artistry, and this transfer seduces us from the opening frames.
'Anna Karenina' comes equipped with a forceful yet nuanced DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track that handles the delicacies of intimate exchanges with as much aplomb as the full-bodied tones of larger scale sequences. The mix flaunts a nice surround feel that's especially evident during passages of Dario Marianelli's lush music score. A good amount of front channel stereo separation lends welcome expansiveness to certain scenes, and subtle atmospherics are judiciously sprinkled among the rears.
Bass frequencies are especially strong. The thudding of hooves during the horse race scene supplies a potent, resonating rumble, as do the train wheels grinding along the tracks at various points throughout the drama. A wide dynamic scale handles the highs and lows well with no hint of distortion, and accents, such as the train whistle, are crisp and distinct. Dialogue is always clear and easy to understand, and hiss and surface noise are utterly absent.
This is a warm, bold track for such an intimate drama, and those who appreciate fine fidelity and tonal depth will be quite pleased with this transfer from Universal.
A nice suplemental package enhances this classy release. None of the material is especially meaty, but it provides an interesting overview of this innovative production.
Innovative, involving, deliriously romantic, yet faithful to the dark elements of its classic source material, the 2012 version of 'Anna Karenina' stands apart from its predecessors, thanks to its unique cinematic treatment and lavish production values. Director Joe Wright fashions yet another stunning period film and Tom Stoppard's well-constructed screenplay condenses Tolstoy's opus without compromising it. Though many identify Garbo with the title role, Keira Knightley puts her own stamp on the part, infusing it with a heightened sensuality and contemporary air that make this 19th century woman relatable to modern audiences. Exceptional video and audio transfers enhance the experience, and solid, if rather shallow, supplements provide glimpses of how this ambitious project came together. This version may not eclipse others, but its freshness and vibrancy earn it high marks and an enthusiastic recommendation.