Director Joe Wright teams up with Keira Knightley once again
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 is 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.
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.
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. 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.