If movies like Barrymore and Anna Karenina will prove anything during this upcoming awards season, it’s that ‘The Theater’ is definitely not dead. Both films are movies set on stage, involved in the theatrical quality of human relationships and the melodramatic self-immolations larger-than-life characters impose on themselves. In many ways, Anna Karenina is ripe for a staged retelling (even if through the framework of celluloid) and director Joe Wright hits the right balance in presenting one of literature’s most prized heroines in a 21st century way that is both progressive and still aware of the historical context in which the character lives and was conceived.
Like most costume dramas, the real star of the film is the lush set of outfits and velvet-draped backgrounds that scream ‘baroque’ and ‘Old World Europe’ at every turns. The set design is spectacular in more ways than can be counted, with Wright expertly using the difference between an actual stage and the metaphorical stage to dramatize his story. Keira Knightley (who plays the lead) has never been in better form, playing the character in an almost pitying way that somehow makes you admire her. Anna Karenina may be trapped in a loveless marriage to a man she loathes (Alexei Karenin, played to dapper perfection by Jude Law) but her fealty to her young, doting son and her desire to see her brother escape the same romantic fate she has had to endure reveal an inner steel in her that we have to admit was probably the best a woman could do under the prevailing social circumstances of the 1870s.
The movie is carried firmly on the strength of Knightley’s delicately painted shoulders, and it succeeds as well as her past outings with director Joe Wright that include modern classics Pride & Prejudice and Atonement. It doesn’t always reach the depth of psychic pain it perhaps ought to, but then those are the natural limits of costume dramas. And it makes a far more satisfying viewing experience than all four Twilight movies could ever hope for. Instead of standing in line for the latest teen vampire love slog, you’d do much better to watch an actual film about actual adults struggling to make sense of actual relationships.