Many people won’t have noticed that Joe Wright has directed two films since Pride & Prejudice (2005) and Atonement (2007). His LA-set biopic of a homeless cellist, The Soloist (2009), was as sparsely attended as its title implies. More saw Hanna (2011), a startling chase thriller starring Saoirse Ronan (essentially playing Jason Bourne’s kid sister), but they might not have recognised it as the work of a man whose greatest career accolades have come from putting Keira Knightley in lovely period frocks.
On the surface, his latest outing, another adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s oft-filmed doorstop, might seem a retreat to the tried-and-true. Knightley’s back. So – and how – are the frocks. But this playfully heightened, sporadically glorious Anna Karenina seems to have picked up more from its heroine’s near-namesake Hanna than you might expect – with Wright kicking the fizzy stylisation of his last film up several notches, into territory that recalls Baz Luhrmann (the film even opens on a set of red velvet stage curtains, perhaps not an accidental nod to Luhrmann’s theatrical trilogy: Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge!).
The pop songs have been kept at bay by Dario Marianelli’s lush score, but Wright’s chief postmodern gambit here is setting Tolstoy’s epic Russian romance – horse races, frozen lakes and all – almost entirely within the confines of a theatre, the characters oblivious to their new context as they emote around stage hands and pulleys. It’s a bravely disorientating move, the play-within-a-film providing an effective metaphor for the inescapable gaze of Moscow high society as Anna rebuffs her stodgy husband (Jude Law) for the studlier attentions of cavalry officer Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). There’s much sensual pleasure, too, to be had in watching Wright negotiate the logistics of his staging: visually, it’s his most exquisitely designed film yet, and Knightley, resplendent in exaggerated furs and art-directed lace veils, has never looked more like an honest-to-goodness movie star.
But, as Anna herself learns, all this beauty comes at a price, and while Wright’s ornate contraption dazzles on a scene-to-scene basis, it never really moves us: the passion between Anna and Taylor-Johnson’s mannered Vronsky is smothered by the scenery, while Tom Stoppard’s adaptation fails to forge the emotional connection between their story and the purer parallel romance of Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) and Kitty (the wonderful Alicia Vikander). It’s as if Wright has lavished so much energy on reframing the familiar narrative that the story itself has become secondary: everyone may be inside the theatre in this impressive film, but a Russian chill has crept in anyway.