Keira Knightly was born to be in costume dramas. Her face is the stuff of aristocratic ideals, possessing as it does the hue and fragility of porcelain while having at its disposal enough doe-eyed expressions and pampered nose wrinkles to inspire monocles to drop into brandy tumblers from across a gilded ballroom. Quite how the common man might feel about her is another matter because like her character in Anna Karenina, she probably doesn’t spend much time thinking about serfs.
Director Joe Wright has created an ambitiously theatrical production in a very literal sense and it is beautifully and intricately styled and shot. The constant flourishes of onscreen opulence do much to obscure the fact that the plot and characters become lost in the thoroughly enjoyable flights of creative filmmaking.
Knightly plays Anna, a Russian aristocrat whose marriage to Alexi Karenin (Jude Law) is fractured by an affair with a dashing young cavalry officer called Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Her relationships with her family and the societal circles in which she moves are also altered by her infidelity and the pursuit of romantic love, or at least insatiable lust, outside of wedlock is explored at length alongside themes and concerns which were relevant only in the 19th century.
Wright sets the action within the confines of a tumbledown theatre, presenting many sequences as if they were literally part of a play. Sets rise and fall from the rafters and are constructed on the fly, while extras crowd the seats and gangways where appropriate, creating street scenes and balls while only occasionally forcing the camera out of the main auditorium.
Costumes, choreography and performances are all meticulously controlled and mesmeric, with Law and Knightly putting in particularly good turns. Taylor-Johnson’s fresh face seems a little too youthful at times, which is hardly his fault and a problem he overcomes with a mature, measured portrayal of the erotically charged cuckolder.
The film can’t do the book justice, but Wright seems to be aware of this fact and so carves his own niche by toying with the traditional costume drama tropes and constantly engaging the audience with the exciting and the new. At times the plot makes it feel like a very expensive daytime soap, but this does not distract from the fact that the nuts and bolts of cinema have never been so appealingly revealed.