Wright's new take on the oft told Tolstoy classic is vibrant and energetic, making it easily accessible to a 21st century audience. It's devoid of stuffiness and is in no way reverential towards its source material. So don't be put off by the fact that it's a costume drama with well-spoken British accents and buttoned up emotions. His impressive cast are game enough to cut through all that repression and seize their characters with full throttle energy. They're unafraid to act from the gut and really go for it. More power to 'em.
Knightley is excellent in the title role. She imbues the character of Anna with the right amount of longing and passion, trapped in her loveless marriage to Karenin (Law), and knocked sideways when she meets womanising cavalry officer Vronsky (Taylor-Johnson). Their scandalous relationship rocks the high society patrons of Moscow and St Petersburg. The actress has drawn brickbats from certain quarters in the past, entirely unjustified in my opinion. She's choosing interesting, esoteric projects such as Last Night and Seeking a Friend For the End of the World now – and giving fine performances to boot – and was courageous in her interpretation of Sabina in A Dangerous Method. OK, so she didn't successfully pull off the character, but top marks to her for being so bold in trying. One must admire her for not playing safe. Here she charts Anna's blossoming from shy wife and mother to ripe wanton lover to unstable mental case with sure footed aplomb. It's a terrific turn and she plays it to the hilt – a major advance for her.
Her co-stars are equally solid, with a very fine turn from Law as her unsympathetic husband. He underplays skilfully – a cold glance, a subtle shift in movement, never allowing the emotions to seep through fully. And Taylor-Johnson is a convincing stud succumbing to true love for the first time. The three principles are well supported by Gleeson as the highly sensitive friend of Anna's caddish brother (MacFadyen, relishing the chance to cut loose for a change) and Vikander as the object of his affection, the young beauty who is distressed and hurt to be passed over by Vronsky for Anna. These actors surrender to Wright's vision and Tom Stoppard's adaptation with ready enthusiasm.
It's not a realistic attempt. It's main setting is an old Victorian theatre, with scenes swiftly taking place on, behind, in front of and next to the stage. Only rarely do we see a sequence in the outdoors. We are always aware that we are watching a highly stylised take on the novel – almost like a musical without the songs. The camera swoops and swirls as it goes from set to set, smoothly moving in and out of the proceedings with confident ease, avoiding tedium setting in.
It's a most persuasive endeavour overall but it ultimately fails to move as it should. One is never emotionally engaged enough. There are so many good elements to this effort it is a pity that it falls at the final hurdle. We should be in tears at the end but we remain cold to its outcome. Still, worth a look though for the fine turns from the top cast and the youthful vigour that Wright brings to it. He's redeemed himself after the mis-step of Hanna.
EXTRAS ★★★ There's an audio commentary with director Wright; eight deleted scenes (13:08); the featurette Anna Karenina: An Epic Story About Love (4:54); the featurette Adapting Tolstoy (5:12); the featurette Keira as Anna (4:25); the featurette On Set With Director Joe Wright (5:05); the featurette Dressing Anna (3:26); and the featurette Anna Karenina: Time-Lapse Photography (8:16).