Not just an intriguing movie, it is also a breathless stream of beautiful choreography and visual design. The film feels fresh, exciting, and vital, despite a well-worn story. It manages this by driving forward like a train itself; an image and sense that repeats in many forms and meanings throughout the film. You should see this film, if for nothing else, the first 25 minutes which are non-stop movement and story that is just stunning stagecraft and legerdemain. But the movie neither takes itself too seriously nor ignores the depths of the plot they are working with. In fact, I was put very much in the mind of Moulin Rouge, but without the pop music.
The cast is exceptional as well and, being based on a Russian novel, rather large.
Through Knightley (Seeking a Friend, Never Let Me Go) as Karenina s a wonderful mirror of naivete and desire. She acts as guide while we learn 1800s Russian society and mores, not to mention taboos and culture. Karenina is our modern eyes lost in a suffocating and complex world of rules and expectations.
As her husband, Jude Law (Hugo, Repo Men, Sherlock Holmes) is unrecognizable for a great part of the film. He has one of the more difficult challenges in the story and manages to actually garner some sympathy for a character that is so straight-laced, it is a wonder he can move.
Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Nowhere Boy, Kick-Ass, Albert Nobbs, Savages) manages to grow an infamous rake interested only in the sensual to a man in love, without losing the essential core of the character. While Kelly Macdonald (Brave, Decoy Bride, Nanny McPhee) takes a wronged wife through an essential arc to provide a sounding board for the fallout that Taylor-Johnson’s character wreaks.
In addition to the opening sequence, there is another scene worth calling out: the ball scene. It is one of the sexiest, magical, and best representations of the intent of such events I’ve seen on film. Balls were the chance for people to have time together and court in public. The dance was a way to meet others, thus changing partners, and to tease, the physical contact that, in public, would have otherwise crossed too many boundaries. The directing choices and choreography, in literal this time, are jaw-droppingly gorgeous and enticing.
All of these aspects are a huge credit to director Wright (Hanna, Atonement). The fact that his approach to frame the story, which begins quite self-consciously on a stage before breaking into the “real world” and then, as expected, returns to complete the frame before the end, was only conceived of a few weeks before production began. Artists and epiphanies are legendary. That he had one and could pivot his entire approach and pull it off with almost no time is astounding. I look forward to his commentary on the disc at some point to hear more detail about the experience he described in various interviews already.
And finally, but by no means the least of the reasons for success, is Stoppard’s (Vatel, Parade’s End, Shakespeare in Love) script. The writing is witty, wonderful, and often surprising. It melds beautifully with Wright’s approach, which isn’t surprising given Stoppard’s stage history. The language is at once timeless and modern, yet feels like period. Stoppard is among the best dramatists of the last 100 years or more, and a favorite of mine. This script is a great example of what he can do, though I’d encourage anyone to see or read as many of his plays as you can. He has a love of language and story structure that puts him in rarified company.
In case I haven’t been clear about this film: see it! Not enough people did (including myself). In a tough field this year, it did manage to win an Oscar for costume design, but it really didn’t get the notice it should have.